But these were unusual moments when United States had the right leaders, leverage, circumstances, and partners to play these consequential roles. Just as often—through, for example, interventions in Latin America and the Middle East, both clandestine and overt, or support for brutal authoritarian rulers, and of course repeated attempts to broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis—the United States has acted in ways reflecting a mistaken view that somehow America could impose its own values on a world eager to receive them.
Nowhere has this dysfunction been more apparent than in the Middle East. Today’s conflicts in this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region are more likely to have outcomes than solutions, in large part because they’re driven by internal social, religious, and political factors that are hard if not impossible for external powers to repair—even though outside powers help sustain the fighting. The Middle East is littered with the shattered, false beliefs of great powers who thought they could impose their will on small tribes, reform or change local political cultures, or heal the sectarian and political conflicts that have bedeviled the region for decades.
The “get caught trying” bias also assumes that the cost of failure, relative to the cost of not trying, is negligible. The problem is that the world’s most compelling idea isn’t nationalism, democracy, or capitalism: It’s success. Winning generates power and credibility, and failure generates the opposite. This means there are real costs beyond mere wasted effort to not succeeding, as America’s recent history demonstrates. My own view is that the country’s failures in war- and peacemaking have contributed to a loss in America’s ability to command respect, fear, and admiration in places around the world. The direct costs of failed military interventions like Iraq can be counted in dollars and lives. The costs of failures like the Camp David Summit are harder to measure, but the unrealistic and unrealizable expectations generated by that effort played into the hands of extremists. They made it easier for Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat to acquiesce in and support the violence of the Second Intifada, following the provocative 2000 visit of Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, a site considered holy by both Muslims and Jews.
It wouldn’t be fair to accuse the Obama administration of not trying in all spheres (see Cuba and Iran) because of his reluctance for action in others (see Syria). And yet the image of the president that seems to have stuck, largely driven by the president’s risk-aversion in Syria, is of a hesitant, leading-from-behind foreign policy that’s abdicated U.S. responsibilities.
The fact is that in the Middle East, America can’t win, whether a given administration’s bias is for action, as pursued in Iraq and Libya, or the inaction that characterized the Obama administration’s response to the first few years of the Syria conflict. As Philip Gordon, Obama’s former special assistant for the region, summarized recent American involvement there: “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” Indeed, contrary to America’s purported status as “the indispensable nation,” the world could have done very nicely without the policies America pursued on any of these issues.