The downside of a post-imperial presidency

Argue that the United States has no business trying to build or maintain an empire, and you’re unlikely to face many arguments from libertarians or limited-government conservatives. But a decision to limit foreign entanglements carries consequences, as Robert Kaplan recounts in the latest issue of The Atlantic.

As for the critique that imperialism merely constitutes evil: while that line of thinking is not serious, it does get at a crucial logic regarding the American Experience. That logic goes like this: America is unique in history. The United States may have strayed into empire during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the resultant war in the Philippines. And it may have become an imperial Leviathan of sorts in the wake of World War II. At root, however, the United States was never meant to be an empire, but rather that proverbial city on a hill, offering an example to the rest of the world rather than sending its military in search of dragons to slay.

This, as it happens, is more or less the position of the Obama administration. The first post-imperial American presidency since World War II telegraphs nothing so much as exhaustion with world affairs. Obama essentially wants regional powers (such as Japan in Asia, and Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East) to rely less on the United States in maintaining local power balances. And he wants to keep America’s enemies at bay through the use of inexpensive drones rather than the deployment of ground forces.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s energetic diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran and Israel-Palestine might seem like a brave effort to set the Middle East’s house in order, thereby facilitating the so-called American pivot to Asia. And yet, Kerry appears to be neglecting Asia in the meantime, and no one believes that Iran, Israel, or Palestine will suffer negative consequences from the U.S. if negotiations fail. Once lifted, the toughest sanctions on Iran will not be reinstated. Israel can always depend on its legions of support in Congress, and the Palestinians have nothing to fear from Obama. The dread of imperial-like retribution that accompanied Henry Kissinger’s 1970s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East is nowhere apparent. Kerry, unlike Kissinger, has articulated no grand strategy or even a basic strategic conception.

Of course, if the current administration has no interest in building a foreign empire, there’s even less reason to pursue an imperial presidency in domestic affairs.

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