October 31, 2013

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes pushed back against the Middle East’s “contradictory standard” toward the United States in an exchange quoted by David Ignatius in his column today.

“People want us to resolve all conflicts, and they also oppose our intervention,” Rhodes told Ignatius. “It’s our fault, no matter what happens.”

By warning that the United States can’t be involved in solving every problem, President Obama is rejecting this conflicting attitude, as he put it.

This new trope can be heard throughout the administration; Obama himself made a similar remark in explaining U.S. “unwillingness” to use force in Syria. It strikes a chord with Americans fed up with Middle East countries that blame the United States for just about everything while happily pocketing billions in economic and military assistance. It is therefore shrewd messaging for domestic ears, appealing to a Middle East-weary public glad to see the administration take a stand against such maddening behavior.

But since America considers itself the leader of the free world (right?), Rhodes’s comments in actuality sound a deeply discordant note. His complaint might be accurate, but whining becomes countries no more than schoolchildren. By these statements, the United States is acting the part of a petulant child accusing his classmates of not playing fair. The United States, though, is not a child in need of adult intervention. It is the adult.

The United States is both looked to and cursed over matters big and small because it remains the one indispensable country on the international stage. (Until China comes in for similar treatment, there’s no question who the world’s superpower is.)

The “contradictory standard” is actually an enormous compliment to America, proving it’s an actor in whatever arena it chooses to operate.

But right now the United States is choosing not to show up. At root, Rhodes’s complaint is really an excuse for the United States to disengage from the Middle East, for Washington to pack up its marbles and head home because it doesn’t like the way it’s being treated.

Which is a shame, because these “contradictory” statements demonstrate the continued opportunity the United States has in the region. Washington has an opening to pursue whatever path it chooses — whether that’s additional aid, human rights advocacy, institution-building, etc. — because these countries still look to America to lead.

This is an invitation for the United States to project its power, and by instead taking umbrage at Middle East rhetoric, not only does the White House take itself out of the game, it diminishes the perception of power that is as influential as on-the-ground action. If this giant can be dissuaded by such Lilliputian contradictions, then how tough is it anyway?

Instead of acting like a sore loser, the United States should be proud that these mixed messages from the Middle East mean it’s the only game in town — for now.