For those advocating a more forward-leaning and muscular American role overseas the unveiling this week of the Senate Intelligence Committee report about CIA brutality handling post-9/11 terrorism suspects has been nothing short of a disaster. The fallout from the disclosures is fueling more self-doubt in an America that has been in retreat for several years, and it is aggravating the deeply ingrained ambivalence the country has to foreign engagement.
In the margins of the annual dinner in Washington on Tuesday of the National Democratic Institute—a democracy-promotion organization created by the US government during the more confident Reagan years—the mood was gloomy. Attendees at the swanky Ritz-Carlton Hotel—policy-makers and lawmakers, staffers and commentators—had been glued for most of the day to TV and computer screens watching the grisly news unfold.
The self-doubt of the Washington’s Democratic elite contrasted with the determination of a trio of foreign political activists who had come to receive awards for the courage they displayed in Kiev’s Independence Square last winter seeing off Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych. The three—two of whom are now amazingly young Ukrainian lawmakers—took the opportunity in their acceptance speeches to urge America not to abandon their country in its confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
For them, at least, the United States remains the exceptional nation, the indispensable one you turn to in time of trouble.
Who else should you turn to? The Europeans, who have been even more laggardly than the Obama administration in sanctioning Russia for annexing Crimea and mounting a stealth invasion of Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region?
The last time Washington left the Europeans in charge was in the 1990s in the Balkans— “the problem from hell,” as then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher described it—until the internecine conflicts could be ignored no more, even by a Clinton administration rehearsing Obama’s “multilateralism.” Throwing off reluctance to use American power, the Clinton White House eventually engineered the endgame in the Balkans by arming the Croats and the Bosnians and bombing the Serbs.
Or should the Ukrainians— and the Syrian rebels and the Kurds battling Islamic militants for that matter—put their faith in the United Nations Security Council, where the human-rights-loving Chinese and Russians wield vetoes?
The appeal from the Ukrainians— it came after a speech from Vice President Joe Biden calling for more civilian shoes on the ground rather than military boots—sat well with an audience used to seeing the US as a force for good in the world rather than as a nation that uses torture. For a few minutes it seemed like old times, a return to the clearer fault-lines of the Cold War.
But the morale boost the Ukrainians delivered was fleeting.
As the evening wore on, condemnation continued to pour in from around the world. The post-dinner conversations of staffers and policy-makers was seamed with shame, and even defeatism.
Some worried that Washington is so focused on ISIS that potentially bigger problems are not being addressed as thoroughly as they should be. Failure to be firmer with Moscow is being watched by China, an aide argued, making Beijing bolder in its aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
With the Mideast in flames, the establishment of a jihadist caliphate and a grudge-bearing Russia hell-bent on re-ordering the so-called “near abroad,” we are reaching, in the words of former Deputy CIA Director John McLaughlin, “levels of unprecedented danger.” Not a world, surely that America can run away from.
A few hours before the Ukrainians made their appeals and as the fallout from the
Senate panel’s report spread, McLaughlin told a terrorism conference flatly, “U.S. influence is not what it used to be.”
Before the anti-Islamic State coalition was formed “there was not a lot of confidence in the Middle East that the United States knew where it was going, knew what it was doing and knew how to organize itself to deal with the problems in that area,” McLaughlin told the conference at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank, .
The cerebral McLaughlin, who also served as acting director of Central Intelligence, was hardly reassuring on the “what now?” question. He took apart the main alternatives as he saw them in the Mideast: There is no appetite for a major US military intervention, brokering a deal to end the civil war in Syria had already been tried, and deciding to live with Bashar al-Assad would be difficult. He then mocked himself. “I have to be careful of not doing what we used to accuse people of doing in my old business of ‘admiring the problem’”—in short, engaging in self-defeating over-analysis.
He’s not alone in Washington in feeling stymied. It is as though the wild gyrations of America’s moral compass a few years back has now knocked its geo-strategic compass off balance, sending it, too, askew. “I sometimes think the problems are so immense and complex that we should just walk away,” a senior State Department official, crestfallen by the torture disclosures, told me in the margins of the NDI dinner. Such an isolationist sentiment isn’t something the Ukrainians want to hear. Like the anti-Assad rebels and Kurdish fighters, they are pleading for more of America, not less. There is no one else to turn to.