Having just spent several days in Israel and Palestine for the launch of Molad, a new Israeli think tank, I had hoped to devote this column to some of the takeaways of my trip. However, I was reminded this week that the first thing a stay in Israel and Palestine teaches, or ought to teach, is that a 1,000-word column is not the easiest format for nuanced exploration of whatever one has learned. So instead of a trip report, I’m going to turn a regional lens on another source of full employment for foreign policy pundits these days: the twin tropes of American decline and American essentialism. Or, as expressed by liberals and conservatives, Palestinians and Israelis, secular and religious observers alike, “America can no longer do as much as it did before,” and “America needs to do more.”
Like so much else, this isn’t unique to the Middle East. You hear it from Europeans about Vladimir Putin and from Asians about China. What’s fascinating is how seldom the “more” they call for refers to something that a weak, declining power would be likely—or able—to do. No, the “more” that must be done is usually something that would reinforce or assert an American role more reminiscent of the Cold War superpower, or even the post-Cold War sole superpower—that is, the America that the same people calling for “more” usually assert we no longer are: more security guarantees for the Gulf states; more pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu; more involvement in Iraq. To say nothing about reining in Putin, getting Georgia into NATO and selling more—and better—weapons to Taiwan.
In fact, decline is such a convenient reason for explaining why the United States is not behaving as the speaker wants it to that, if it didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. In fact, however, that’s exactly what happened: American decline was invented, and it is now widely available to explain whatever Washington is not doing at any given moment.