Thursday, January 17, 2013

Has the American empire struck out?

When the U.S. president, Barack Obama, appointed John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to his new administration, what did he intend? By naming them, Obama sent a message about his policy preferences. And what he also said was that he favored those who had irritated the neoconservatives, thus helping Obama sharpen his own image.

That was always Obama’s main problem. He has spent too much time affirming what he isn’t, fighting against the legacy of George W. Bush, while failing to underline what he really stands for himself, especially in foreign policy. The president hopes that once Kerry and Hagel are approved, he can tell us more about himself. But how likely is that? Is there really any sharpness to the eternally shifting Obama?

One thing apparent is that Kerry and Hagel, though men of character, are not endowed with a strategic vision. Both are used to the maneuvers habitual in Congress. Their life has been shaped more often by compromise than by any sense of the ultimate goal. Rarely in the past few years has either man formulated a broad policy vision. They are known for how out of step they were with the Bush White House, not for how they hope to rewrite America’s role in the world.

This was particularly true in the Middle East. Hagel is famous primarily for criticizing the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Iran. For a Republican after 9/11, this required courage. He has been accused by Israel’s supporters of not being dedicated enough to the relationship with the Jewish state. This Hagel’s defenders deny, but even if correct, it says little about his long-term ambitions for America’s armed forces, or the policies he will adopt at the Pentagon. It seems absurd to argue, for instance, that he will cut military cooperation with Israel, even if he is less eager to go to war with Iran than others.

As for Kerry, he sought to thrust the U.S. in directions opposed by the Bush administration. Yet we cannot underestimate how beneficial it is that he failed. Kerry’s efforts to spur cooperation with Syria went nowhere. The man he thought he could sell as a legitimate partner of Washington, namely Bashar Assad, has become toxic, a mass murderer who even Kerry will avoid mentioning these days. Yet, quicker than most, the senator sensed the mood change after April 2011, swerving away from Assad when the killing began in Syria, calculating that it might undermine his sway in Washington.

One can debate Hagel’s and Kerry’s choices, but what we cannot debate, simply because there is nothing on the table to debate, is how they will make use of their new role. Both men have bucked the consensus in Washington, but nowhere do we get a sense of what this might mean in their new positions. Kerry’s thinking outside the box on Syria showed how little he grasped realities in that country, namely how eager were the Syrians to impose change at the top.

Assume that his criticism of Bush was justified, though one would have thought that all the ex-president’s talk about democracy in the Arab world showed that his worldview had something going for it. Bush is an easy target, and in Obama’s America, those like Hagel have been reborn as visionaries, men bold enough to have taken on Bush and his staff. If what Obama wants is a man who will shoot down prevailing wisdom, fine, but once again it hardly offers us a worldview, or about what to expect in terms of military or diplomatic strategy in the years to come.

Perhaps that is what is most distressing in Obama’s Washington. There is a lot of attitude and a willingness to challenge past policies, but without any direction or ultimate purpose. Strategy is not a thing Americans do particularly well, and since the end of the Cold War, American officials have rarely thought two or three steps ahead, devising policies to advance strategic objectives. More often they have tended to look only at the next step, deciding on policy and action based on the current context.

That’s not bad when it reflects the dynamics of an accountable democratic order, whereby officials will shift tack depending on how their policies are received. But it’s also true that when overseas policies are almost entirely driven by domestic attitudes, themselves usually formed by media, it becomes very difficult to decide on long-term aims, or even specify what is important and what isn’t.

That will be the challenge for Hagel and Kerry. Hagel, some believe, will have as one of his roles a radical cutback in American military spending. Perhaps, but if so, foreign policy will have to adapt accordingly, which is Kerry’s role. Less money for the military, for instance, will delimit precisely what the Obama administration means by the “pivot to Asia,” sold mainly as a pivot away from the Middle East. But if there are not enough resources for anywhere but Asia, that means that Kerry will have to work heartily to show the other regions of the world that America is still relevant.

But how relevant does America really want to be? Obama has been a revolutionary president in deciding that the empire had to greatly slash its ambitions, or else it would go bankrupt. He may be right, but the implications are dramatic. Does he see the U.S. as British officials did Britain in 1947, a country incapable of sustaining its overseas presence due to national insolvency? In a way yes, but can the United States really afford to retreat into its shell?

The questions Obama raises are worthy ones. They have to be discussed by Americans, who must ask whether the empire is ending. Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry will be the face of America’s reach. Their actions will elucidate whether the empire is no more.

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