Confused and Adrift

Posted: Aug 20, 2013 12:01 AM

The world was never in better shape than when the British Empire was in full flower. So on from one abiding truth to another: Things never go well unless and until the good guys and the top dogs are one and the same.

What follows is an argument from common sense and precedent in favor of American supremacy in every aspect of international life.

Why such an argument has to be made in the first place is among the wonders of our age, except that over on the left side of the political waterway numerous Americans think American power can't shrink fast enough, and with it is America's capacity to influence the rest of the world. It is a feat we can't seem to bring off any more. No administration since Jimmy Carter's has presented to the world a fuzzier impression of our intentions than does Barack Obama's. With growing help -- alas -- from self-styled conservatives such as Rand Paul.

The world's No. 1 military and economic power tends to come down with the willies as it contemplates, on the one hand, all this remarkable power, and on the other hand, the guilt many would find in the wielding of that power.

Guilt and regret are the default gestures of American presidents and policymakers in this quarter of the 21st century. The absence of both in the calculations of the British during the 19th century help explain the long stretch during which unwillingness to mess with Britain contributed signally to the blessing known as Pax Britannica -- British Peace.

We live, as it happens, in a post-imperial, post-Cold War era when we can't even decide --witness present policy debates -- when it's legitimate to intervene abroad. What to do in Syria? What to do in Egypt? Why don't the Russians behave? What's to be expected of China? And how much can be expected of us when the trajectory of our military power -- cuts in ships, cuts in planes, cuts in nuclear weapons -- is downward, in the absence of public objection?

We have come to suppose believe the Middle East can get along without much more than our friendly advice. Our active displeasure? What would that mean, and to whom? That the Americans seem unwilling to do much more than talk, irrespective of what happens in Syria and Egypt, may be part of the reason factions in both countries feel free to eviscerate each other. In Egypt the U.S. seems to have lost any influence it might have been expected to exert over its longtime ally. The Egyptian generals don't care what America thinks. Why should they, when American leadership seems not to know what it thinks.

Which is the reason we talk and point fingers. Our leaders, Republican, as well as Democratic, if truth be known, paint no precise picture of what America should worry about and what it should want done. The world easily picks up on what goes on. The Russians give asylum to Edward Snowden, knowing we don't do anything hurtful in response, beyond cancelling another Obama-Putin chinwag.

The U.S. won't do military exercises this year with the Egyptians?! Golly! How do they stand it?

Historic parallels can be overdone. It was fashionable for some time following World War II to equate "softness" toward the Soviets with the self-deceit Britain and France practiced in dealings with Hitler before World War II. Invoking such a parallel today would be hard. We have no one Hitler. We have harrying us instead a multitude of international screwballs -- including Islamic terrorists whose constitutional rights seem to concern us more than their capacity to do harm.

One human reality endures: In international affairs, the weak and confused, rather than the strong and determined, get hit the hardest. America isn't precisely weak. Confused, though -- about the legitimate uses of power, about the virtues of our own country and system, about the intentions of our enemies! That's America, circa 2013. And not a very comfortable place either from which to look out on a world that, as ever, fears only the fearless.

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