I spent the weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum, hanging around with military brass and think-tank experts from around the world. On TV, Israel and Hamas were firing rockets at each other. Everyone agreed the world is a mess. (So what else is new?)
They also agreed that the world needs more America, not less. This came as a surprise to me. Only yesterday, it seems, these same people were arguing that the United States should stop meddling and trying to impose its will on others. Its reckless adventurism, they said, was bad for everyone.
But now, the U.S. is taking a big step back. It stands by and watches as Syrians are slaughtered. It refuses to impose peace on Israel and the Palestinians. Officially, its new approach is known as a “lighter footprint.” Yet if the U.S. starts leading from behind, everyone is worried the world will fall apart.
“Leading from behind really becomes a problem,” said one prominent Lebanese journalist, who, like many of her colleagues, has been highly critical of the U.S. for leading from the front.
Both hawks and humanitarians ascribe magical powers to the U.S., as if it could bestow peace and democracy on the Middle East if only it tried harder. They are wringing their hands over Syria, where Bashar al-Assad (who was recently celebrated as an unusually enlightened dictator) has massacred 40,000 of his own people. John McCain, the hawkish U.S. senator, said he is “ashamed” that Washington hasn’t intervened. Syrian democracy groups said they feel abandoned. The ghosts of Bosnia and Rwanda were invoked.
In the midst of all these lamentations, a cranky old European journalist named Josef Joffe delivered an icy blast of reality. “Let me ask some nasty questions,” he said. “Which of our many moral duties demands such sacrifice, and how do we decide? Will we have to commit more bloodshed than we want to prevent? What is the end to this intervention? What will happen after we leave? What are our capabilities? And what is the chance that we don’t get the results we want?” Syria, he reminded us, is locked in a civil war in which many of the good guys are also bad guys. If you arm them, they will proceed to slaughter the losers if you don’t watch out.
In fact, America’s ability to shape the world is far more limited than either its fans or critics think. History is littered with cautionary tales of unintended consequences. The U.S. wanted to spread democracy in Iraq and wound up strengthening Iran. Idealists around the world cheered on the Arab Spring and watched it blossom into the Great Islamist Awakening. As Mr. Joffe asked, what do we do until the Islamists turn into nice liberal democrats like us?
With the humbling lessons of the recent past, no wonder President Barack Obama would rather lead from behind. In any event, he has little choice. The U.S. is out of money. The activities formerly known as the global war on terror set the U.S. treasury back by an estimated $4-trillion, to say nothing of the cost in blood. No wonder he is so enthusiastic about drones. NATO allies are also slashing defence budgets. Peter MacKay, Canada’s Defence Minister, may talk nobly about the “higher calling” for countries such as ours. What he means is that we’ll put our values into action so long as it doesn’t cost real money.
Afer a decade of futile and expensive wars, most Americans are sick and tired of leading from the front. They’d just as soon let the world look after itself. If Afghanistan goes to pieces when the troops come home in 2014, so what?
We may be entering an era in which the U.S. is the leader not by design but by default. Americans want to be dispensable. But the world won’t let them.