The United States has stumbled into a mounting crisis, a crisis of our own making and one built on ideology and indecision. Through our vacillations and obsessions, we now risk losing credibility with our allies and partners and ultimately political effectiveness with our rivals and opponents. As a result, a leadership vacuum is opening which could well lead to instability, and ultimately compromise U.S. security. We are rightly perceived by friend and foe as reluctant or even unwilling to lead, unreliable and distracted by internal squabbling and a looming domestic confrontation.
In fairness, the situation we find ourselves in developed over several years and through a dispiriting series of missteps. It is a collage of the decisions and policies of both the last and current administrations, as well as a pervasive domestic undercurrent of self-doubt. Between the predilection for unilateralism of the second Bush administration, and the seeming overreaction to and withdrawal from active commitments in President Obama's, we have managed to damage our brand in both extremes.
To make matters worse, an entirely new, secretive unilateralism is emerging, the consequence of an obsession with security and reorienting U.S. efforts in the war on terror from overt to covert operations. It has been mired heavily in surveillance and spying across both administrations. Between the two, a growing distrust and suspicion now colors international opinion of the U.S. and there is more resentment than at any time in recent memory.
Against these lurching extremes in foreign policy is a powerful crisis of identity domestically, contributing to a paralysis in debate, leadership and in turn policy: the growing tension and division over who we are at home and who we wish to be globally. Our wandering and conflicted foreign policy only reflects a wandering and conflicted notion of what America is. If we don't agree or know who we are, how can we possibly grasp what our national interests are, yet alone pursue them?
Obama inherited the greater part of this division, but he has also stoked it, intentionally or not. What historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called "The Disuniting of America," the balkanizing effect of identity politics and a cultivated multiculturalism aimed at challenging assumptions of American virtues and displacing political elites, has helped erode a long-held sense of national identity and rough policy consensus. Obama the politician shrewdly campaigned on division and dissatisfaction, focusing on these flaws and past transgressions, sharpening these divisions, but he was the product, not the cause of them.
Obama the president has reflected this, at best, ambivalent view of the country, and responded with a reluctant foreign policy with sharp limits. He has rejected the shorthand of exceptionalism, of the U.S. as an example to be followed. Suspicious of U.S. leadership internationally, he has shared the view that the U.S. is fundamentally flawed, and he largely kept the country on the sidelines in emerging crises that do not directly threaten U.S. security, rather than offer American leadership.
Ostensibly, Obama took office with a perhaps overeager goal of remaking America at home and abroad. Yet the bewildering litany of apologies at the outset of his administration for what he considered past misdeeds sounded more like a stage in an anguished twelve step program than the basis of finding a new starting place in international relations. It was also shortsighted. In breaking pride he also gutted the hope of fashioning some semblance of consensus in an area that might have offered him a degree of success politically and to unite Americans, re-crafting a positive leadership role internationally.
Chicago mayor and former Obama adviser Rahm Emanuel's ill-timed posit that one should never let a serious crisis go to waste describes seeking opportunity in chaos. Obama inherited the serious mess of the post 9/11 security paranoia in all its overreaction, mistakes and squandered resources. His misfortune has been wasting a great post-cold war opportunity to refashion and reset the tenor and direction of a still robust U.S. leadership internationally out of ideological distaste. Instead of showing contrition for sins of commission he should have focused on recovering the best aspects of U.S. multilateral leadership, rooted in coalition building, and develop a new model of leadership by example – not by words but by deeds.
The challenge of any presidency is to forge a working consensus for the solutions to the nation's problems, either through compromise or through persuasion. This is never an easy task, but Obama has made it harder with his inaction and his demonizing of critics. In practice, Obama's reluctant, absentee foreign policy has pleased few and united none. On the vocal left there is disappointment that he has not moved further away from the policies and practices of the Bush administration, especially in force projection, on the anti-internationalist right, anger in the belief he has hobbled U.S. foreign and security policy and abandoned traditional partners.
Between them, in the great middle swath, he has planted a sense of frustration and bewilderment with a suspicion that the U.S. has lost its way. Overseas, there is a sense that the U.S. cannot be taken seriously. And while the world has never been fond of an adventuring America, it is less happy with an absentee one. It need not be this way. It's time to again acknowledge our unique international responsibilities, to reach out and match them with a new sense of consensus and purpose – a post- Cold War reckoning long postponed. That is the role of a president.
Elizabeth McCall is a national security and foreign policy consultant and writer specializing in strategic planning. She served in Policy Planning at the Department of Defense and is now the president of Delphium, LLC, Alexandria VA.