Coup in Egypt: America Doesn’t Run the World After All

Egypt is descending into political chaos.  And there’s nothing Washington can do.  Indeed, American foreign policy is a wreck.  The common assumption that the U.S. controls events around the globe has been exposed yet again as an embarrassing illusion.

Egypt will almost certainly get a lot worse before it gets better.  The message that political Islamists cannot rely on the ballot box sends a particularly dangerous message.

Much of the rest of the world also appears to be in flames, despite America’s best efforts.  None of this was supposed to happen.  If only Washington exercised “leadership” all would be well. 

Well, never mind.

The triumphant end of the Cold War inflated U.S. confidence and ambitions.  American leaders simply saw further, explained Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.  Which presumably is why she confidently informed uncomprehending Muslims that she believed the mass death of Iraqi babies due to economic sanctions “was worth it.”  Indeed, administrations of both parties believed that the U.S. was entitled to intervene at will, coercing, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations for whatever reason Washington saw fit.  And there would be no consequence from America’s actions.

Unfortunately, as I explained in my latest article on National Interest online

this all proved to be a world of illusion, filled with smoke and mirrors.  On 9/11 a score of angry young Muslims brought war to America, destroying the World Trade Center and damaging the Pentagon.  A bunch of ill-equipped and ignorant Afghan fundamentalists refused to admit that they were defeated, and more than a decade later still resist the U.S. backed by a multitude of allies and a covey of local elites.  The invasion of Iraq was met by IEDs instead of flowers, and created an ally in name only, with Baghdad ready to thwart U.S. military objectives when it saw fit.

American pleading, threats, promises, and sanctions had no effect on the course of events in North Korea.  Civil and military conflicts ebbed and flowed and political contests waxed and waned in Congo, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe with Washington but an ineffective bystander.  Russia’s Vladimir Putin ignored U.S. priorities both before and after the fabled “reset” in relations.  China protected North Korea and bullied its other neighbors, despite diplomatic pleadings and military pivots.

Washington’s response to the Arab Spring has proved to be no more effective.  In Egypt the Obama administration has managed to win blame from all sides for all things:  for supporting Mubarak, for not saving Mubarak, for allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to triumph, for not blocking the Muslim Brotherhood, for opposing Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, for encouraging a coup.  Yet, ironically, there’s no evidence that Washington had significant impact on events, despite decades of meddling.

America’s policy elites pine for a simpler world in which Washington micro-manages the world.  That world never existed.  It certainly does not exist today.

Given the existence of chaos and disaster at most every turn, the U.S. government should abandon its illusion of omniscience.  Candidate George W. Bush promised a more “humble” foreign policy.  Barack Obama should adopt such an approach.