Almost daily we read of America's "waning power" and "inevitable decline," as observers argue over the consequences of defense cuts and budget crises.
Yet much of the new American "leading from behind" strategy is a matter of choice, not necessity. Apparently, both left-wing critics of U.S. foreign policy and right-wing Jacksonians are tiring of spending blood and treasure on seemingly ungrateful Middle Easterners -- after two Gulf wars, the decade in Afghanistan, and various interventions in Lebanon and Libya.
We certainly have plenty of planes and bombs with which to pound Syria's Bashir al-Assad. Never in the last 70 years has the U.S. military been so lethal.
But chaos in Libya followed the death of Muammar Gadhafi, and the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood seems poised to replace Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Most Americans assume that if we were to remove the murderous Assad dynasty in Syria, the rebels would either show us no gratitude or install a replacement regime not much better.
So much of our sagging profile abroad is simply a growing realization that the Middle East is, well, the Middle East: You can change the faces, but the regimes end up mostly the same -- as innate reflections of the volatile mix of tribalism, vast infusions of oil money, radical Islam, and generations of dependency.
Can decline be better measured by our vast debt of $16 trillion, growing yearly with $1 trillion deficits? Perhaps. But Americans know that with a new tax code, simple reforms to entitlements, and reasonable trimming of bloated public salaries and pensions, we could balance federal budgets. The budget crux is not due to an absence of material resources, but a preference for not acting until we are forced to in the 11th hour.
Do high gas prices and huge imported-oil fees reflect an energy-short America? Not really. There are 25 billion barrels of oil sitting right off California's central coast, and much more in Alaska, the Midwest, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern shore. At some point, when gas hits $5 or $6 a gallon, a new generation of Americans will be cured of its smugness and decide to tap trillions of dollars in natural riches.
In other words, the manifest symptoms of decline -- frustration with the Middle East, military retrenchment, exorbitant energy costs and financial insolvency -- are choices we now make, but need not make in the future.
If our students are burdened with oppressive loans, why do so many university rec centers look like five-star spas? Student cell phones and cars are indistinguishable from those of the faculty.