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Syria: The End of American Omnipotence

How is the Syria crisis forcing U.S. elites to see what the world already knows?

September 3, 2013

Kandahar, March 2013. Credit: PJF -

In the annals of American foreign policy, few adversaries may end up having as much of a lasting effect on the country’s future than Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad. A despicable man, he is nevertheless teaching the United States a most valuable lesson.

Regardless of whether or not Obama decides to strike, the end of American omnipotence, long overdue and a delusion for some decades already, is now evident in the eyes of all but the densest people.

Official Washington, always given to determined displays of manliness in foreign affairs, has a hard time coping with what’s currently going on regarding Syria. A big rearguard battle is being fought on U.S. editorial pages. This “battle” puts the emptiness, if not silliness, of the American politics of symbolism on full display.

Alexander Hamilton’s noble dream that it is America’s mission “to vindicate the human race” is but a pipe dream today. It is a cumbersome global obligation, not the prerogative or domain of a single nation.

What about the talk about America’s “vital interests” in the Middle East? It is equally empty. If a nation has vital interests everywhere, it has no effective foreign policy strategy.

Then there is the perfectly circular talk that, unless the United States now moves militarily, it will be seen as an emperor without clothes. It will stand diminished in the eyes of the world.

This assertion is ludicrous. The rest of the world has long understood that what U.S. strategists now fear most — that the United States is badly overextended and can’t keep up with its gargantuan appetite for intervention — has been a reality for some time.

What the world community wants is a United States rooted in realism, not a country in the grip of misguided dreams of omnipotence.

True, the United States has a near endless appetite for intervention. This week in Washington, a think tank ominously presents a seminar on the next “dark networks” in the Atlantic Basin. That is a thinly veiled appeal for the U.S. government to intervene even more openly in the drug wars in Western Africa.

No question, there are many ills in the world of today. But bringing to bear what can only be described as a U.S. hyperactivity disorder ends up in generating nothing but the creation of false hopes and severe disappointments.

The sad truth is that, in the Washington policy debate, too few people really care to connect the dots. Just recently, in late August, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech were celebrated.

Instead of all the fanfare and false hype, the commemoration should have been the cause of profound soul-searching.

Fifty years on, the United States has largely failed African-Americans in their quest for real, not just formal integration into the American mainstream. For evidence, look no further than the shocking numbers of young black males in the U.S. prison system.

Undeterred from all that hand wringing and verbosity, the man in Damascus, unshakably cynical, is calling the U.S.’s bluff. He knows that U.S. foreign policy too often resembles a hyperactive chess player who cannot think but one move ahead.

No wonder that Russia — an unsavory place in so many regards, but also the birthplace of many a chess genius — has a clear disdain for the constant American penchant to be satisfied with doing nothing else than “breaking a little china.”

Globally, the evidence is clear: Too often, U.S. foreign and military policy is good only from the air. On the ground, it has frequently left behind a disastrous legacy, whether in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Under those circumstances, Obama’s recent choice — to engage the U.S. democratic process before the fact of military action — has to be welcomed.

It is a most useful reminder for the foreign policy and defense apparatus of the United States that it, too, must deal with severe trade-offs and limited resources.


In US foreign policy, few adversaries may have as lasting an effect on the country's future than Syria's Assad.

If a nation has vital interests everywhere, it has no effective foreign policy strategy.

US foreign policy too often resembles a hyperactive chess player who cannot think but one move ahead.

Too often, US foreign & military policy is good only from above. On the ground, it can leave a disastrous legacy.

In Washington policy debates, too few people really care to connect the dots.