Chaos Abroad Challenges America's Power

Syria's civil war rages, Egypt's leadership churns, and the U.S. seems unable to shape world events. It's not clear how much the U.S. viewpoint matters now in Egypt or elsewhere across the Middle East. Over the last several months, the chaos across the region has been a case study in the limits of American power.

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In Egypt, the embattled interim government is laying out a plan for elections early next year. The new leaders say they hope the plan will help calm the situation after weeks of protests, violence and government upheaval. American officials say they're encouraged by this move; but that they can't dictate a timeline for elections. Which raises a question: How much does America's viewpoint even matter now, in Egypt or elsewhere across the Middle East?

Over the past few months, the chaos across the region has been a case study in the limits of American power, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Last week, President Obama spoke carefully about the protests in Egypt. He said the U.S. would not try to dictate a specific outcome. But he did draw one firm line.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: They're going to have to work through these things. The key is making sure that they don't work through them in a violent fashion.

SHAPIRO: Within days, violence erupted and more than 50 people died. That's pretty typical of U.S. efforts to shape the Mid-East nowadays: Whatever Washington says mustn't happen, happens. Take Syria.

OBAMA: Assad needs to go.

SHAPIRO: Two years into Syria's civil war, President Bashar al Assad remains in place. And the U.S. seems unable to do anything about it.

COLONEL ANDREW BACEVICH: We find ourselves, in essence, as spectators of history as history unfolds.

SHAPIRO: Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich teaches International Relations at Boston University.

BACEVICH: The real cause of change in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan - if you go that far a field - the real causes of change are internal. And therefore yes our power is limited. And in some respects I think our power is actually irrelevant.

SHAPIRO: White House officials won't go that far. They argue that the U.S. still has more influence than any other nation. But they acknowledge that the U.S. cannot chart the course of events on the other side of the world. And that puts President Obama in a catch-22: Either he can do nothing and look like he's abandoning America's global leadership role, or he can say things he'll likely soon regret like this.

OBAMA: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.

SHAPIRO: ...and then he looks impotent when Syria's government uses chemical weapons anyway.

Jessica Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She argues that Obama diminishes his credibility when he declares things unacceptable, then lets them happen.

JESSICA MATHEWS: The voice of the United States is still important. And many people in the world, almost by reflex, expect the U.S. to say something in a particular international crisis. But there are times when by far the better route is to work behind the scenes or to be silent.

SHAPIRO: If President Obama is erring on the side of too little action, many argue that his predecessor, George W. Bush, erred on the side of too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HELICOPTER AND EXPLOSIONS)

SHAPIRO: The bombing of Iraq, known as Shock and Awe, launched a nearly decade-long war. Thousands of lives and many billions of dollars later, Saddam Hussein is gone, but Iraq is scarcely a beacon of stability and democracy.

James Lindsay, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says this shows that the U.S. can do some things well - like tear down a government.

JAMES LINDSAY: United States power, whether military or economic, is not as successful when it comes to creating stable, well-functioning, institutionalized democratic governments.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. did successfully build stable democracies after World War II - Germany, Japan, and South Korea, for example. But those projects had broad international support. Lately, President Obama's efforts to get the international community in line have failed. On the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia still support Syria's government.

Last week in Johannesburg, Obama complained that some members of the Security Council want to be free riders.

OBAMA: They love sitting around the table deciding what to do, except when it comes to bearing the burdens, bearing the costs, sometimes sharing the blame for difficult decisions that have to be made. Then suddenly, well, yeah, I'm neutral.

SHAPIRO: It was an unmistakable expression of frustration from a man who's discovered how far from all-powerful the world's leading superpower really is.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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