We have made ourselves a navel-gazing folk, a little like Americans of the 19th century — until we lunged into the world by bravely going after the crumbling Spanish empire. And in truth there is plenty that is worthy of our inward gaze now that unjust foreign wars have dropped out of the repertoire.
But absorption in our many domestic ills is not what we are all about these days. Vigorous scrutiny at home, never an American habit, is not why we do not much look outward. For most of us, the point is to avert our eyes as our claim to leadership in global affairs weakens. As an impatient world wings past in pursuit of a new order, America is befuddled and America flinches.
This is my read of foreign policy in the era of Obama and John Kerry, our most mediocre secretary of state since Condi Rice. Well, since Colin Powell. No, since Madeleine Albright. OK, since Warren Christopher. Let’s say since Larry Eagleburger, since … Alas, there is a reason the State Department is called “Foggy Bottom.”
It’s time to notice that Kerry cannot do much more than run to catch up. In Syria, in Iran, in the Pacific: State has been managing no more than frenetic improvisation since Kerry took office last February. And when Kerry is able to exert American preferences, as in Egypt, he gets it very wrong — invoking the past, ignoring the new century’s extraordinary dynamism, reverting to Cold War typology as if it can still be made to apply (and as if it ever did).