WASHINGTON — My dad was an old artillery officer. Having escaped Hitler as a teen-ager, he was fighting for America in Europe five years later. You would think this would have had a profound impact on him. You would think it would produce great lessons he could pass on to his kids. It probably did. But he didn’t pass them on. Rather, he said that the most important lesson he learned in the field artillery was, “If you can sit down, sit down. If you can lie down, lie down. And if you can sleep, sleep.”
It’s a lesson I took to heart. Interestingly, the spirit of this lesson now infuses all American foreign policy. With regard to America’s approach to the world today, the version of my father’s maxim would be: “If you can do little, do little. If you can do nothing, do nothing. And if you can get the heck out, get the heck out.”
It used to be that America distinguished itself from every other nation because we were the only country in the world that when almost anything happened, our response would be “What should we do?” While for most other countries, the responding question would be “Should we do something?” Today, however, the idea of taking action is so anathema or difficult or risk-laden or all of the above, that when something happens, the question America seems to grapple with is “What should we say about this?”
The United States has gone from being a hyperpower to becoming the equivalent of a mere commentator on world affairs. Too often, it seems we practice foreign policy by Twitter. In our hugely president-centric system it looks like the president and his views are our primary foreign policy deliverables. He disapproves. He approves. He imposes a red line in Syria. He moves the line, and then he moves it again. He seems to forget about the line even as evidence of repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrians seems to mount. This is how America throws its weight around these days.
How do we deal with a problem like Egypt? Lay on the adjectives. Russia got you down? Throw in a crack about Vladimir Putin’s posture. Oh sure, we can take modest action. In Russia, for instance, we canceled a meeting with our president. In Egypt, we pull the plug on joint military exercises that seemed likely to be canceled anyway. And within days even what actions we did take with regard to Egypt were obscured in a bizarre set of conflicting messages — first aid to Egypt was under review, then possibly suspended, but secretly, but maybe not, but. . . . Well, none of it mattered anyway because the Saudis said they would provide whatever financial support we withheld. So in the end, our meager influence was negated and virtually all our real allies in the region alienated, left to doubt our resolve.
What we are doing in Egypt is the opposite of policy. It is confusion wrapped in chaos shrouded in incoherence. It doesn’t demonstrate influence, it undercuts it. Many of the president’s most stalwart supporters are starting to worry that — following the departures of strong voices like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta — America’s standing is deteriorating. One former top Democratic National Security official said to me, “The result of repeated ineffective incrementalism is impotence. I’m afraid [speechwriter] Ben Rhodes may have been half right when he called what we were doing ‘leading from behind.’ Because in many instances now, we’re not leading at all.”
Now, given that in our very recent past we have paid a high price for over-reaction and over-reach, more measured, thoughtful and nuanced responses are certainly welcome in principle. Furthermore, in some cases — despite public outcry and justifiable indignation (as in Egypt and in Russia) — it is important to remember that nothing is as simple as the talk show moralizing makes it out to be. For example, while murdering protesters in the street is deplorable, it is important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood abused power and committed human rights violations on such a widespread scale that it’s hard for any fair-minded observer not to welcome their removal from office. And while Putin may be a relentless provocateur, issues like nuclear disarmament still require open dialogue between our countries and shutting down relations now would be extremely foolhardy.
That said earlier examples of our “less is more” foreign policy helped create the dilemmas we have with both Egypt and Russia. Both instances illustrate how strong action was called for and its absence exacerbated serious problems that dog us today. In the case of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, we were comparatively quiet as he ran roughshod over the Egyptian constitution. Had we had a serious conversation about revoking aid or had we, in concert with our allies, applied greater pressure on him, perhaps we could have influenced events so they wouldn’t have deteriorated to the point that a military overthrow of his government was not only inevitable but welcomed by so many Egyptians. That we failed to take action against Putin as he enabled Bashar Assad’s slaughter of his own people in Syria, but instead felt compelled to punish him for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, speaks volumes about our priorities.
As Joe Biden predicted during the 2008 campaign, Obama has been tested by foreign leaders. And, after each challenge, the resulting message — sent again and again — has been clear: you may get a stern talking to but these days the United States doesn’t really have the appetite for bold foreign policy moves.
Just like our president who recently made a quick statement on Egypt and immediately returned to the golf course, this is one superpower that is on vacation. How long the break will last will go a long way toward determining whether the decade ahead will be seen as a period of protracted U.S. decline or a time of rebound, one that so many of our allies (and even some of our rivals) recognize the world needs if it is to be a safer, more stable, more prosperous place.
David Rothkopf is CEO and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy magazine.