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The Cult of U.S. Leadership

Middle East

John Glaser explains why it is misguided to worry about the lack of a U.S. role in the latest round of Syria negotiations: 

Much of the handwringing in Washington over Russia’s leadership in the negotiations centers on a fear that America might be demoted in its status as the indispensable nation if a geopolitical competitor like Russia successfully negotiates a resolution to one of the world’s worst conflicts while the U.S. sits it out. This concern is misplaced for at least two reasons. First, status and prestige are overrated assets in international politics. They can play an important role at certain times, but they pale in comparison to more material security and economic interests. Rooting against the success of peace talks just because we don’t want Russia to regain a modicum of the great power status it once had betrays a rather unbecoming lack of self-esteem that is wholly unfair to the millions of Syrians that would benefit from even a brief hiatus in daily violence and besiegement.

Secondly, one wonders what benefits the U.S. has derived from all its leadership (such as it is) in the greater Middle East.

One might also wonder how any other countries have benefited from that same “leadership” in this part of the world. Thanks in no small part to U.S. “leadership,” Iraq was turned into a charnel house, Libya and some of its neighbors were destabilized, and Yemen is being starved to death by the Saudis and their allies with our support. What would lead us to think that the U.S. has the first clue how to help resolve a conflict in the region when we have had such an important role in starting or escalating others? Over at least the last fifteen years, the U.S. has contributed significantly to making the places it is supposedly “helping” more violent and chaotic than they were before they enjoyed the benefits of our “leadership.” I don’t have any confidence that other outside powers will do any better, but after more than a decade of one costly failure after another how can anyone still imagine that relying on U.S. “leadership” is the right answer for them or for us?

The trouble is that many people in Washington aren’t interested in judging U.S. “leadership” by its results, but prefer to judge it by their intentions. Because they are ideologically committed to thinking that it is a good and necessary thing that is essential to maintaining international order, there is enormous resistance to acknowledging the evidence that it often undermines international law and harms the countries where it is most forcefully applied. The Washington consensus that Syria’s civil war has dragged on primarily because of a lack of sufficient U.S. “leadership” is a reflection of this. Obama is faulted for “allowing” that war to continue on the very questionable assumption that he could have easily halted it, but if that’s not true (and I don’t think it is) that means that more “leadership” wouldn’t have changed anything for the better and might very well have made matters worse. Of course, the first rule of believing in U.S. “leadership” is to believe that it never makes things worse, and so it becomes the ready-made answer to every new problem. Once you understand that this isn’t true, it is much easier to accept that there are sometimes international problems that the U.S. can’t solve and shouldn’t try to fix.




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