Throughout the Arab spring, analysts and policymakers have debated the proper role that the United States should be playing in the Middle East. A small number argued that the U.S. should adopt a more interventionist policy to address Arab grievances; others, that Arab grievances are themselves the result of our aggressive, interventionist policies; and still more that intervention was simply not in our national self-interest. The Obama administration, for its part, attempted to split the difference, moving slowly, especially at the outset, to censure dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Bashar Al Assad in Syria, while eventually supporting aggressive military action against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.
The reasons for the Obama administration’s passivity during the Arab spring have been many, but perhaps none is more helpful in explaining it than the notion of ”œdeclinism.” With the exception of neoconservatives and a relatively small group of liberal hawks, nearly everyone seems to think America has less power to shape events than it used to. An endless stream of books and articles has riffed on this theme. The most well-known of the genre are Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, Parag Khanna’s The Second World, and, from a more academic perspective, Charles Kupchan’s The End of the American Era.The Obama administration has appropriated some of the main arguments of this literature. An advisor to Obama described U.S. strategy in Libya as ”œleading from behind,” which Ryan Lizza, in The New Yorker, explained as coming from the belief ”œthat the relative power of the U.S. is declining … and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”
But in an ironic twist of fate, even as Americans seem to be placing an all-time low amount of faith in their ability to effect change around the world, many Arabs participating in the recent uprisings””despite their apparent fear and loathing of U.S. power””placed a disproportionate amount of their faith and hopes upon us. Americans””and American liberals, in particular””have yet to grasp this basic paradox. In their time of need, facing imprisonment, torture, and even death, protesters, rebels, and would-be revolutionaries still look to the United States, not elsewhere. Whether they find what they’re looking for is another matter.