The Limitations of the United States and its President

Despite his empty-chair-talking tendencies, I still remain a fan of many of Clint Eastwood’s movies. And one of my favorite Eastwood scenes occurs in the Dirty Harry film Magnum Force where Clint observes “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

I only wish more people heeded this advice.

The Republican party used to follow the precepts of Henry Kissinger (right, pictured with former President Ronald Reagan) in foreign policy–preserving American national interest ran supreme and the country’s limitations in foreign policy were taken into consideration. Nowadays, it seems Republicans, and often Democrats as well, don’t seem to believe the U.S. possesses any such limitations.

Most recently, the Romney campaign has been peddling the asinine idea that riots in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc.; the rise of the Muslim brotherhood and similar Islamist organizations; and the even the whole damn Arab Spring is the fault of (you guessed it) President Barack Obama.

The idea that the United States, let alone one man within it, could effect all this massive change is not only unrealistic but it also robs the peoples of these regions of any type of agency or individuality of their own. The Arab Spring and the events following it arose from an array of factors—domestic and regional history, ideological motivations, and individual and group choices. All of this would’ve occurred pretty much the same as it did regardless of whether Obama or John McCain or Mitt Romney were president.

The Romney campaign seems to believe that not only can the U.S. president control the institutions and minds of individuals in the Middle East but that he or she can dictate the behavior of regional powers like China and Russia. This again, ignores the limitations one state has in the international arena and robs agency from other regimes and people. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in his book The Post-American World, as other states and non-state groups rise in power, the ability of the U.S. to act as an unchallenged hegemon wanes.

Republicans used to be the party of Henry Kissinger and realpolitik in foreign policy — focusing on U.S. national interests and realizing where and when the state could realistically influence events. This ideology was cold, calculating and often inhumane. But one thing it was not — it did not, for the most part, overestimate the potency of U.S. power.

But the Republicans aren’t the only ones at fault for this type of thinking. Americans in general seem to believe that the presidency is a seat of ultimate power (despite the constitutional restraints of divided government) and that their country can affect change wherever and however it wants.

For instance, when President George W. Bush was in office, many Democrats, generally those running for office, claimed that once a Democrat held the presidency, the people of Darfur would see justice and the crimes of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir would finally and properly be addressed. This, of course, ignored the complex reality of Sudanese politics, institutions, religious and ethnic conflicts within the country other than Darfur, and the ability of the United States to simultaneously and effectively address all of these.

This is not, of course, to say that the United States cannot and should not try to effect change in the world for the benefit of humanity where it can. It just means we need to realize our limitations and behave more modestly.