The United States, in my opinion, is likely during the next few years to lose its world leadership, albeit peacefully. Two items in Thursday's New York Times suggested to me that one reason is the infuriating attitude of moral superiority which has become second nature among American elites. The rest of the world has already largely rejected it, and our hypocrisy is now becoming too obvious to miss. It has also become a terrible obstacle to dealing with the world as it is, which remains the main task of leading power like ourselves.
The first of these two items, sadly, was President Obama's speech to the United Nations on the Middle East. 44 years after the Six Day War, the Palestinians are doing more or less exactly what the Israelis did 20 years before that: asking the United Nations to recognize their state. (I have not been able to discover, by the way, why that issue in 1947-8 was handled by the General Assembly instead of the Security Council.) This is the kind of problem the UN was created to solve, obviously, and since Israel has disclaimed any intention of making all the inhabitants of the West Bank citizens of Israel and Jordan has renounced that territory as well, it seems logical enough to acknowledge the principle of Palestinian sovereignty. In addition, the current Israeli government clearly is not interested in creating a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, or any state that enjoys true sovereignty, including the control of its borders. President Obama began his term by asking Israel to freeze settlement construction, a prerequisite, clearly, to such a deal, and they refused to do so. Now he is reduced to arguing that the Palestinians have to wait for their state until the Israelis are willing to give it to them, and the Palestinians are quite right, it seems to me, to conclude that that day may never come. More importantly, nearly all the rest of the world agrees with them. The President is now enjoying the worst of both worlds, since he hasn't been able to move the peace process forward but has cemented a new alliance between the Republican Party and the Israeli government. In a new low in American politics, reports state that the Administration actually enlisted Benjamin Netanyahu to convince the Republicans not to cut off all aid to the Palestinian authority--at least not yet--in retaliation for their demand for statehood. What Netanyahu giveth, he can taketh away, and there is a good chance that he will if the Palestinians get what they want fro the General Assembly. Obama also disturbed me by reading the list of Arab leaders, some of them long-time American allies, who have been overthrown in the last year. One can welcome political change in the Arab world without pointing to scalps nailed to a nearby wall. It was the business of the Arab peoples, not ours, to deal with those leaders, and they have done so.
The second item was Nicholas Kristof's op-ed, describing a remarkable interview he had with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a rational world, that interview, combined with other Iranian statements and recent acts--including the freeing of two American hikers--could be hailed as a sign of a possible diplomatic breakthrough. Ahmadinejad told Kristof that Iran would in fact abandon its uranium enrichment program if we would sell them uranium enriched to 20%. Kristof did welcome this statement and asked the government to pursue it, but in giving his account of the interview, he focused on the embarrassing questions he kept asking as if to show Ahmadinejad that he didn't meet American standards of statesmanship. He asked him to compare the revolts in Syria to those in Iran, had repeatedly suggested that Ahmadinejad didn't enjoy the support of the rest of the Iranian leadership, and he invited him to repeat the Iranian cover story about the famous picture of the murdered Iranian protester. Kristof routinely tries to impose his own morality on the world, and not only in commentary. Journalists like himself no longer have to respect the traditional reporters' prejudice against becoming part of the story and some years ago he treated us to several columns about his attempts to free a young Cambodian girl from a brothel. (He took her out, but, in a telling commentary on American altruism, she returned as soon as she could.) Now in fact neither he nor anyone else can turn Iran into a modern western society with our values. We have taken a stab at this once before, when Kristof and I were young, with disastrous results. The only serious question is whether, in fact, we can reach a deal regarding the Iranian nuclear program--a deal which would head off a very real possibility of a disastrous war between Iran and Israel in which other important Muslim states might now join. Iran's human rights record is not really very important compared to that, and Ahmedinejad's personality isn't either.
Under the influence of the Boom generation, both the American left and right have contributed to this tendency. The left, including Obama advisers like Samantha Power, have decided that morality trumps international law and proclaimed not only a right, but an obligation, to disregard the sovereignty of other nations. The right is now drunk on "American exceptionalism." This will leave us with fewer and fewer friends. Nicolas Sarkoczy, the most pro-American French leader in modern times, has now distanced himself from Washington over the Palestinian issue. In the 1940s we fought the Second World War for a world of impartial principles--but the include respect for national sovereignty and the rights of all peoples to choose their own forms of government. I can't see when we will return to that view.