The United States is a superpower but hardly a superhuman entity. It has never been that super, as all of us can attest.
For people who have long been obsessed with observing America’s every action, reaction and inaction, there has never been a shortage of criticism. But unless one is wearing an ideological blindfold, modern history clearly shows that the United States is one of the few countries that has tried to impose international order and where people’s rights and government accountability have been taken seriously. True, the United States itself has often done much to undermine the very system it was trying to impose, but the fact remains that no other country has tried to adopt a global perspective in the way America has.
That said, America has never done as much to undermine global order in the way the Obama administration has in the last three years. In fact, the very idea of a global order has been dealt a fatal blow, largely thanks to President Barack Obama’s inaction on the ongoing carnage in Syria – a development that started on his watch, received ample media attention, and yet, from which he repeatedly and inexplicably has distanced himself at every turn.
Today, impunity seems to be the only guiding principle of our times, if not its very embodiment.
By trying to transform America into a country like any other, Obama abandoned America’s established role as anchor of the global order, a role which it had diligently embraced in the past. The result is chaos and improvisation, allowing states such as Russia and Iran, both ruled by corrupt cliques, to have more say in determining the fate of peoples and nations within and beyond their borders than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Worse, nonstate actors such as Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah can now help shape events and processes around the world on an almost equal footing with the United States, if not more so. They are, indeed, as legitimate, and perhaps more ambitious.
This is what “normal” looks like in the multipolar world with which Obama and his advisers have reconciled themselves. Intentionally and with ideological vigor and convictions rivaled only by that of America’s enemies, the president is charting a path to prolonged mayhem and chaos, which is now impinging on our consciousness. But America can shield itself from the fallout and that’s all that matters, or so we are told.
If only that were true! For while the idea of a multipolar world should not necessary be anathema to us, and might indeed be inevitable, there is no reason, or justification, to allow for the transitional period to unfold in such a callous manner. Not unless one is reconciled to the proposition that the multipolar order is based on violent conflict and on the subjugation of small states and their peoples to the whims and interests of the powerful few.
Armed with such a conviction, Obama’s America is joining Russia, Iran and China, among other powers, in accepting that certain cherished values have become archaic – values for which so much “blood, toil, tears and sweat” have been expended, to quote Winston Churchill. The substantial decrease in funding for democracy promotion in the current budget submitted by the White House; the willingness to allow dictatorial regimes to determine the identity of NGOs that might benefit from such aid; such developments are signs that this is indeed the kind of world whose emergence Obama wants us to accept as inevitable.
That’s a fine place for an American president to be, especially one who owes much in his career to the successes of the civil rights struggle in his own country.
But, for those of us who still believe that it is our duty to work for a better world, no matter how difficult the task, we have every reason to demand that America should shoulder its historic responsibilities and lead the way. America must do what it did in the aftermath of both world wars: Establish new rules of engagement, including drawing clear “red lines” against the abuse of global norms while responding when this takes place.
Notions such as human rights cannot be relegated to the sidelines and certain crimes such as mass murder and genocide cannot be allowed to happen and the guilty parties forgiven. It is not utopian to require that, after 10,000 years of human civilization, mass murder and genocide be made things of the past – things of which we can be ashamed to the point of preventing them from happening again wherever this is required, without attempting to offer excuses or justifications for inaction.
And who said America will be safe in a chaotic world, and that it can actually go through the thick of it and emerge unscathed? Are its borders any less porous or its people any less prone to radicalization than those of Western Europe, for instance? In an era where nonstate actors can operate globally and are hard to detect, what makes anyone think that America can be protected?
Is Obama counting on Dr. Who to appear and save the day? The doctor often joins the battle late and ends up managing rather than preventing the consequences of disasters. But it is highly doubtful at this stage that Obama can accomplish even that.
The only silver lining in all this darkness is that Obama will be leaving office for good in 2016. Let’s hope that the damage he will leave in his wake is containable, and that his successor will be wiser. We cannot afford more of what we have endured until now.
Ammar Abdulhamid, author of the upcoming book “The Irreverent Activist,” is a pro-democracy activist and political commentator currently living in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he runs the Tharwa Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to democracy promotion, peace-building and international development. He can be followed on Twitter on @Tharwacolamus.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 24, 2014, on page 7.