“My fellow Americans,” said President Ronald Reagan during a soundcheck for a TV appearance in 1984. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Reagan was joking, of course. Not only was the U.S. not going to bomb the Soviet Union; he knew full well that while President of the United States might be the world’s single most powerful political office, even then it didn’t have the power to simply outlaw its enemies and make them disappear. On the contrary, despite his hardline Cold Warrior credentials, Reagan actually negotiated unprecedented arms-reduction treaties with Moscow, and his willingness to engage with the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev played a major part in ensuring a soft landing for the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
Flash forward three decades, and we find the President of the United States being warned — by, among others, those who claim to be Reagan’s heirs — that he has “put the credibility of the United States on the line” in Libya. As Barack Obama prepares to address the nation to belatedly explain U.S. involvement in a military mission of limited goals over Libya, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, among others, warns that if Colonel Gaddafi remains in power at the mission’s end, U.S. credibility will be shot. The reason is quite simple: Barack Obama has said “Gaddafi must go.” And even if the conflict leaves the Libyan tyrant terminally diminished but not yet in the landfill of history, that will mean, according to the “credibility” warning, that the world will realize that the United States can’t always impose its will.
This complaint presupposes a continuing Pax Americana, under which the rest of the world treats the word from the White House as immutable global writ. And it expresses a fear that if that writ is visibly defied or denied, it will represent the sort of geopolitical equivalent of Dorothy peeking behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.
But even Reagan knew the limits on U.S. power, and that power, relative to others, is considerably diminished today compared with Reagan’s era.
When the U.S. tells China to allow the value of the yuan to be set by the currency markets, it is politely ignored. When it tells Israel to stop building settlements on occupied Arab land, it is politely ignored. When it tells the Palestinians to drop a UN Security Council resolution condemning those settlements, it is politely ignored. When it tells Pakistan to join the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is politely ignored. I could go on and on, but that might seem cruel.
Most of the world no longer imagines a sheriff’s star on the suit pocket of the American president. It’s fine for the man in the White House to signal a policy goal — Gaddafi must go — without that being read as the writ of an omnipotent authority. It’s simply stating an objective that the U.S. will pursue via a variety of different means. After all, “mission accomplished” claims notwithstanding, the failure of the U.S. to impose its will by invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq for the best part of a decade long ago revealed the limits of American power.