Column: Wounded Giant Can’t Do Much More Than Make Things Worse

Do nothing as the slaughter in Syria continues? Critics will say he’s weak, he lacks strategic vision, he’s indifferent to the suffering that Bashar Assad’s regime is inflicting on the Syrian people, and he doesn’t care whether Assad thumbs his nose at international law.

Take military action in Syria? Critics will say he’s a reckless hawk, he lacks strategic vision, he’s indifferent to the suffering a U.S. air campaign will inflict on the Syrian people, and he’s thumbing his nose at international law.

It’s not just Syria. It’s Egypt, too, and the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring. It’s the no-win endless war against al-Qaida and the no-win soon-to-end war in Afghanistan. It’s the failed “reset” with Russia and the stillborn “pivot” to Asia. Look to your left, look to your right: You won’t see many defenders of Obama’s foreign policy these days.

But though Obama deserves some of the blame for his current predicament, it’s not all his fault. He’s hamstrung by changes in global power structures, hampered by Americans’ national unwillingness to hear unpleasant truths, and forced into the appearance of hypocrisy by his reluctance to tell the American people what they don’t want to hear.

Here are three uncomfortable truths Obama surely knows but won’t say:

1. The American century is truly over.

America is a declining power. Because Americans live in Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average, you’ll never hear the president acknowledge this in public, but it’s true. Deal with it.

Blame “the rise of the rest.” Europe, despite its various woes, has become a major power. China, India and Brazil are playing ever larger roles on the world stage, and Russia is still strong enough to be a potent spoiler. Yes, America is still the world’s most powerful state, but its relative power is declining as other states flex their political and economic muscles.

Blame technology. Technological change has made us less autonomous than we used to be. Blame air travel, the Internet and the cell phone, which have collectively ushered in an era in which virtually everything — people, ideas, images, money, weapons, pollution, viruses — can zoom around the globe. This, in turn, has created a host of problems no single state can solve alone. Americans are no longer the sole authors of their national destiny.

And let’s save some blame for America itself. The country has made a hash of things. It squandered much of its moral credibility after the 9/11 attacks (torture and secret prisons) and wasted trillions of dollars on wars as ruinously expensive as they were politically inconclusive. Current U.S. counterterrorism policies (drones, surveillance by the National Security Agency) are angering even America’s closest allies.

Domestically, America is also in trouble: Its infrastructure is an embarrassment, its public education system has been allowed to decay, it locks up a higher percentage of its population than any country on Earth — Americans are even too fat to fight. Not to mention, the country’s domestic political system is broken, and the bipartisan rancor on Capitol Hill makes it hard to imagine turning any of this around.

2. No one really cares what America thinks, and the country can’t fix much of anything.

The United States no longer has the ability to mold the world into the shape it prefers. Countries that once courted America no longer trouble to seek its approval or agreement; America’s allies remain polite, but just barely, and its adversaries are increasingly willing to thumb their noses at the United States in public.

Sure, everyone’s still happy to take U.S. money — what little the country has left — but even America’s wealth no longer buys much influence. The Egyptian military takes the $1.3 billion in aid the United States provides each year but ignores the country when doing so suits it; the Egyptian military knows others will step forward to fill its coffers if America has a sudden attack of conscience. The Pakistani government takes U.S. money and helps America’s enemies. Even America’s puppets refuse to act like puppets: The United States has handed over endless suitcases of cash to Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government, and all the country has gotten is a “partner” who denounces America on a regular basis.

So you want Obama to “fix things” in Syria or Egypt or Afghanistan? How? America can’t even fix the public schools in the nation’s capital. Why would anyone imagine it can fix things anywhere else?

3. Breaking things has become America’s main talent.

America has become a wounded giant. It’s steadily weakening, but it’s still strong enough to hurt a lot of people as it flails around. It can still summon up awesome destructive power, and in a world in which fewer and fewer people care about what America thinks or even need U.S. money, it’s increasingly tempting to fall back on brute force.

Back in 2001, the United States ousted the Taliban in a matter of weeks. In 2003, it pushed Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Baghdad in similarly short order. In 2011, it demolished Moammar Gadhafi’s military in a brief air campaign. So yes, America can teach Syria’s Assad a lesson he won’t forget: The United States can destroy his chemical weapons production capabilities, bomb his planes and flatten his tanks.

Breaking things can feel satisfying, but as we’ve seen in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, it only gets you so far. U.S. missile strikes against Assad’s forces won’t turn Syria into a stable democracy. They won’t discredit or destroy Syria’s Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. They probably won’t stop the Syrian civil war either. As an ill-timed but candid letter from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., noted on Aug. 19: “⅛The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict. ... Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends.”

Obama is no one’s fool. He understands that U.S. influence is declining and that America’s still-unparalleled power to destroy can tempt the country into disaster. But he won’t say any of this straight out.

Instead, he skates delicately around the edges of straight talk. He suggests that America can’t solve all the world’s problems. He reminds us, as he did in a CNN interview this month, that “the situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated. ... Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that ... gets us mired in very difficult situations.”

But he won’t tell Americans the blunt truths they need to hear: America can’t fix Syria. Or Egypt. Or most other places. Americans don’t even know how to fix their own problems.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as a counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a State Department senior adviser.