America Must Avoid Presidents Who Will Use Conflict to Define His or Her Presidencies


The next President of the United States — whether it’s Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, or Mitt Romney — is going to have the crap kicked out of him or her by friends and foes around the world.
The problem is that America’s mystique as a superpower was shorn off by Iraq. The US showed its limits — militarily and I would argue economically.
Mystique is ethereal — and comes with decades of collective assessment, and to some degree awe, by other nations that a hyper-power like the United States once “seemed to have no limits.” Mystique can’t be re-established by the success of “the surge” in Iraq or some military conquest or victory. Mystique, and frankly, real global power, comes from decades of being the world’s constructive, deciding vote — from being the Sandra Day O’Connor of judicious engagement in one big problem after another.
Contrary to the views of my friend and Foreign Policy editor-in-chief Moises Naim, I don’t believe America’s place in the world can simply bounce back to where it was before the Bush administration’s turn at the wheel. Major allies and collaborators like Japan, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and others are already placing different global bets and thinking through scenarios for the future that count on America being an important voice at the table — but not the pivotal nation it has been for decades. And foes are moving their agendas now because they sense that America is not doing well at securing its global objectives.
The real problem in the international system today is that a global equilibrium of interests has been wrecked by America’s invasion of Iraq, its failure to secure a normalization deal with Iran in 2003, its disregard for a status-hungry Russia in the Cold War period, and its inattention to China’s rise globally as America remains distracted by its problems in the Middle East.
Duke University Professor Bruce Jentleson and UC Berkeley’s Steve Weber make the good point that the next President will not only NOT start out where President Bush did in world affairs — but from a position damaged by this administration’s decisions and a place far back from even:

But the next president will not be starting from an international position similar to the one Bush inherited no matter how successful the administration is in undoing the damage of its failed policies. A once internationally weak and democratizing Russia has become an autocratic and provocative petro-state. China’s economy is more than twice the size of what it was in 2000, and its global influence has correspondingly risen. And a new generation of jihadists, no less committed to violence, is eager to continue the anti-America campaign.
The GOP candidates who would build on Bush’s old approach to foreign policy clearly don’t get how the world has changed. But neither do Democrats who stress reversing what Bush has done. No one should feel vindicated by the Bush administration’s reversals, because defining the future of U.S. foreign policy in terms of the past would be as big a mistake for the next president as it was for Bush.
When you are a great power, a lost decade does not simply leave you back where you started. It leaves you far behind. Our presidential candidates had better plan to do more than simply reboot the system and start over, as though the clock had stopped in January 2001.

Re-establishing an equilibrium that is stable is going to be very difficult and may very well involve a spate of conflicts and wars — small and large — that we haven’t seen the outlines of yet.
But because of America’s unique role and legacy over the last century and the lofty rhetoric that always flows from American political leaders who still see America as the center of all things — the world will test the next president to get the sense of when power will be depoyed and when it won’t — and how far America will go and what it will gamble to achieve its goals.
All other key nations will want to know what the realities of American power and rhetoric are.
The next president will be tested by friends and foes alike. Imagine the first meetings of Kennedy and Khrushchev in which the Soviet leader deftly bounced Kennedy around during the beginning of JFK’s tenure. But imagine it ten times, hundred times, a thousand times worse — on a scale and complexity of actors and issues that far exceeds the realities of 1961.
It’s going to be a rough ride for the next president. And it would be a cataclysmic mistake for any president not to anticipate these challenges — and to choose any one of the certain-to-come conflicts ahead as a way to define his or her presidency.
— Steve Clemons


14 comments on “America Must Avoid Presidents Who Will Use Conflict to Define His or Her Presidencies

  1. kotzabasis says:

    What about when the enemies of America “use conflict” to “define” their own lunge for power and dominance against the geopolitical interests of America? What America is going to do?


  2. rollingmyeyes says:

    “…, a call to close those cold war bases around the world…” Bill R.
    With your background you are probably more first-person knowledgeable than most about the physical reality of what Bill means when he talks about the shear size, cost and results of those cold war bases. The lack of universal heath care is only one cost that many people are aware of. The slow economic strangulation of the middle classes and the fast strangulation of the poor are other costs. Its very expensive to run all that. It seems to me that most of the candidates are assuming that our Empire will continue in the same way. Maybe better, maybe worse. What justifies this old, ramshackled Empire? Is the Empire wearing clothes?
    Can you visualize a world where our Empire acts like an ordinary powerful country? What if many of those bases were closed down and we were no longer policing the world?
    Jon Stopa


  3. Frank Wilhoit says:

    The domestic conflict will define the next presidency, as it has every presidency since Truman’s. The only question is, by choice or by fecklessness?


  4. Lee says:

    ok you had me until:
    “But imagine it ten times, hundred times, a thousand times worse — on a scale and complexity of actors and issues that far exceeds the realities of 1961.”
    Wouldn’t you say this is a bit of hyperbole? The realities of 1961 were pretty scary. Not to downplay the realities of today, but at least we can be confident the world’s not about to end.


  5. Carroll says:

    I totally agree with everything said in SC’s post.
    The elephant has stumbled, now all the other animals will gather round on an elephant watch, some to try and take a chunk out of it while it’s down and others just to see if it’s gonna get back up on it’s feet. Usually the elephant herd will gather round to protect a fallen member but I don’t know if we even have any friends any more to gather round us. Who are our friends now btw?
    We can try and blame it all on Bush and the neo’s but I think the world sees that we had a fundemental failure in our democracy….that nothing in our constitutional and democratic tools were employed by representives of the people to stop them. The hyenas are the first to smell something rotting so I agree we are for a lot of testing.


  6. susan says:

    It is said that life imitates art.
    If you are familiar with the BBC series Blackadder, you may have noticed that Bush bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Edmund Blackadder, with one small exception: as the series progressed, Edmund became wiser, while George remains as foolish as ever.
    After reading an article in the Asia Times, it struck me that SecDef Gates is Bush’s Baldrick, and here is Baldrick…err Gates’ “cunning plan” for cleaning up the mess that is Afghanistan:
    “…He solicited help from US Congressmen for “pressuring” the NATO capitals “to do the difficult work of persuading their own citizens [in Europe] of the need to step up to this challenge.”
    Here’s the article, and, in my opinion, it is excellent.
    NATO hears ‘noise before defeat’
    By M K Bhadrakumar
    When the blame-game begins in an indeterminate war, it is time to sit up and take note. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ interview with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday rings alarm bells…


  7. judyo says:

    As my dear old Mum used to preach, “once you lose your reputation, you can’t get it back”.
    I believe we will have this to contend with for the duration of our lifetimes.


  8. ... says:

    ajaz – i think you are being overly optimistic and none of your optimism would support the industries that have relied on this bush admin either… i think the only hope they and the msm have is to support bushs marriage partner mccain..
    good post sc sarg.


  9. Ajaz Haque says:

    With the change in Presidency in January 09 one thing is certain, end of the war rhetoric that Bush Administration has created to fool the American people into supporting an illegal war – at least initially.
    I see dialogue taking place between U.S. & Iran, between U.S. & Syria and other countries and the tempers coming down pretty much. We will be back to a more civil atmosphere around the world.
    And yes I agree, calling Cheney a patriot is an insult to all the right minded people in America.


  10. Bill R. says:

    Limits….. you’re talking about limits, Steve, limits to military power,limits to economic power, limits to global influence. Not what Americans like to vote for or think about. That said, a new “realism” would be refreshing, a call to close those cold war bases around the world, and take a more healthy kind of nationalism. Obama’s call for outreach diplomacy around the world is the best thing I see going. If Clinton’s the nominee, I see McCain winning and with either one of them we’ll see more of the same,a deflated empire trying to overextend its reach and prop up the militarist agenda.


  11. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Well, yeah!
    But hey, I was particularly impressed by the bravery he displayed when he suggested we could jog around Bagdad with flowers in our hair, scouting favorable picnic areas.


  12. JamesL says:

    Hey Sarg, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Men and nations.
    God most often stays out of things and lets mortals dig their own holes.


  13. SC Sarg says:

    This sounds like a job for one of our greatest war heroes, John McCain. We need not be reminded that he was shot down over Hanoi, parachuted safely into a rice paddy, and could not even raise his broken arms to make a proper surrender, and now he can’t comb his hair because of his war wounds. As prisoner he spent many years at the Hanoi Hilton where he was given the opportunity to get special treatment because his father was an Admiral, but he says he declined those offers. When he returned to the USA he told his story and was made a Hero, one of the greatest war heroes of this the Greatest Country in the History of the World, which likely makes him one of the greatest war heroes in world history! I would like to name all of the other heroes at the Hanoi Hilton who were shot down and surrendered, but no names come to mind, only that of John McCain, the Hero of the Hanoi Hilton!
    When this war hero becomes president, which cannot be in doubt since the people of this great nation Support the Troops 100%, other nations will think twice about crossing us because of President McCain’s famed temper, and that, coupled with being a proven War Hero will make our enemies cower for when he lashes out it will prove to governments around the globe that we are back bigger, badder, and bolder with a true warrior at the helm!
    God Bless America!


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