In a scathing denunciation of Mitt Romney last week, Fareed Zakaria praised Barack Obama for his nuanced understanding of what Zakaria has called the “Post-American World”:
This is a new world, very different from the America-centric one we got used to over the last generation. Obama has succeeded in preserving and even enhancing U.S. influence in this world precisely because he has recognized these new forces at work. He has traveled to the emerging nations and spoken admiringly of their rise. He replaced the old Western club and made the Group of 20 the central decision-making forum for global economic affairs. By emphasizing multilateral organizations, alliance structures and international legitimacy, he got results. It was Chinese and Russian cooperation that produced tougher sanctions against Iran. It was the Arab League’s formal request last year that made Western intervention in Libya uncontroversial.
By and large, you have ridiculed this approach to foreign policy, arguing that you would instead expand the military, act unilaterally, and talk unapologetically. That might appeal to Republican primary voters, but chest-thumping triumphalism won’t help you secure America’s interests or ideals in a world populated by powerful new players.
Where to start with Mr. Zakaria’s indictment? George Bush traveled frequently to “emerging nations,” as did Bill Clinton. The former’s multibillion-dollar initiatives to help battle AIDS in Africa have saved millions of lives. Long before Obama, the G-something meetings were already more than “the old Western club.” Unlike Obama in Libya or Clinton in Serbia, Bush did not intervene in Afghanistan or Iraq without first obtaining congressional support. Bush obtained United Nations approval for our intervention in Afghanistan and tried to for Iraq. In contrast, Clinton did not go to the U.N. before bombing Serbia, and Obama obtained U.N. resolutions to enforce a no-fly-zone in Libya and offer humanitarian aid, and he then summarily far exceeded both by bombing ground troops.
War with Iran is more likely now than it was in 2008. The opening of a U.S. embassy in Syria accomplished nothing, while China and Russia hand-in-glove block American efforts to impose sanctions on Damascus. The Arab League authorized American action in Libya and then whined when we interpreted its so-so support as a green light for bombing rather than merely giving the rebels military and material aid. Libya is a blueprint for nothing, and that pattern will not be followed in Syria. Unfortunately, the U.S.-forced removal of a tyrant without the presence of American ground troops — completely different from what we did in Germany, Italy, Japan, Serbia, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq — gives no guarantee that something just as bad cannot follow, as we are seeing with the Arab Winter.
In the case of Iran, loud promises of face-to-face talks; empty threats about deadlines; failed efforts at quid pro quo deals with the Russians to thwart proliferation; near silence when protesters jammed the streets of Teheran in spring 2009; mushy apologetic references to our role in the 1953 coup against Mossadegh; and ostentatious outreach to Syria, Iran’s best friend in the region, coupled with even more ostentatious snubbing of Israel, Iran’s worst enemy in the region — all these have made both an Iranian bomb and a war in the Persian Gulf more, not less, likely.
In short, I am afraid that “multilateral organizations” and “international legitimacy” long ago were mostly reduced to partisan talking points. Liberal hysteria over Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, and Predators vanished when Obama embraced or expanded all of them. If there is a war with Iran, the Left will be as quiet about a preemptive effort as it was once so loud over Iraq.
“Chest-thumping triumphalism” of course is unwise; but even worse is naïve and clumsy deal-making at the expense of American interests and allies. It cannot be seriously argued that since 2009 China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, or Venezuela are either more reasonable toward, or more deterred by, the United States. The old hot spots in Afghanistan, Cyprus, Eastern Europe, Iraq, the Falkland Islands, Mexico, North Africa, the former Soviet republics, Taiwan, and the West Bank are not cooler than in 2009, for all the 2012 Obama cool, but more likely warmer and more unstable. I do not think that allies like Britain, Canada, India, Israel, or Poland are more rather than less friendly.
So what about the president’s being praised for transitioning America to “a post-American world,” in which we are supposed to accept a new multipolar reality to replace the fossilized concept of American exceptionalism?
Our own massive debt, the rise of China, and the emergence of India and Brazil as major economies are often offered as proof that post-Americans should accept a new “lead from behind” role abroad. Yet in 1939 there were more multipolar contenders — France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and Japan — than there are now. And in varying ways all those rivals deprecated an isolationist Depression-era America, despite the fact that the U.S. had the world’s largest economy and had miraculously, just two decades earlier, sent a million men to Europe in a single year to ensure the allied victory over imperial Germany.