Whatcha Gonna Do About It?

Assad’s guaranteed election victory in Syria shows how badly U.S. policy has failed.

That was the header of a newpaper piece – WaPo or NYT, I forget which – written in the last week or so, and it made me wonder, not only about Syria, but also about Palestine. Palestine and Ukraine, Iran and Afghanistan, Israel and Belarus, Russia, China, Taiwan – the world at large and everything that is going awry with it.

And my question was: What in the hell can we do about it? About any of it?

We have the most powerful military in the world, but at this point it’s rather like being all dressed up and nowhere to go. I cannot think that Biden will send us back into Afghanistan, no matter the rise of the Taliban. How can we face off against the Russian buildup on the border of Ukraine? We might be able to send a battle ship or two into the Strait of Taiwan, but China will see that as an act of war. Are we ready for a shooting war with China? What can we do to stop Israel from building settlements on the West Bank? To convince Iran to agree to a new deal? To extract a dissenter from Belarus? There is absolutely nothing we can do to overturn the Syrian election.

But, you say, there is soft power. We are, or have been, or might yet be the greatest economic power in the world. Surely there are carrots and sticks that can be applied here and there to great effect. Well, sure. But China and Russia are now first world countries and are able to apply their own brands of soft power. The United States is no longer the only rich guy in town. More importantly, we are no longer to be trusted.

Not too long ago there was an Iran Nuclear Treaty, and a Paris Accords Global Warming agreement and a few others I can’t at the moment recall. Once those agreements would have been seen as gold. Not now. Trump whipped them out of the Resolute Desk and resolutely tore them to shreds practically before our very eyes.

I would like to think that the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is a sign that we have returned to sanity and that henceforth our word is once again gold, but that sort of thing depends, to a degree we haven’t had to consider before, on one defining element of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power. The Morlocks we have created by long years of neglect, by lack of services, opportunity and education, are armed and dreaming of revenge.

They have packed the statehouses and, to some degree, the houses of Congress. They are relatively few but fierce and capable of doing great damage. Their actions appear foolish to most of us, but I have to wonder how the plethora of recounts will contribute to the feeling that there is something there to be found. And if it isn’t found, isn’t that a sign in itself that something is wrong? Because there simply must have been fraud. It is the only explanation they can believe. And finding none, well, that just proves it. Doesn’t it?

And given that, who is to say that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the leaders of the future? Who is to say that a successor will keep their word?

There are very few sticks that work anymore. Bullets bring more bullets and sanctions hurt people with the least power. Carrots – particularly the carrot of being allowed into the world economy as equal partners, as people worthy of trust and friendship – that is perhaps the juiciest carrot of all, but who is to say that the U.S. will not once again play Lucy with the football?

Much of this will depend on what happens over the next couple of years. Can a Congressional Special Hearing do what a 6/1 Commission might have done? Can a couple of Democratic Senators be persuaded to do the work needed to prevent a mass gerrymandering before the midterms? Can we stick together through the Jobs Bill, at least, in the hopes that a rising economy will bring with it the boats of the forgotten? And can we address the blatant inequalities that have been a systematic plague through the centuries?

Because it is if, and only if, we can prove to the world at large that the U.S. is capable of cleaning its own house and of making certain that the word given by one U.S. President will be upheld by her successor, will it be possible to exert our soft power when and where it is needed. I can only hope that day will not come too late.