The Limits of Power

Just because you have power doesn’t mean you have control says Steve Saideman.

By: /
19 September, 2012
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

Events this past week in the Mideast reveal one certainty about international relations: Power is finite. Or, perhaps, control is quite limited. The past two years have revealed that the United States cannot control outcomes, nor can it control agendas. The Arab Spring was a response to roughly similar domestic circumstances with some cross-border inspiration to create a region-wide series of events. To be clear, governments responded differently across the region, with some accommodating the crowds and others repressing them. Regime change happened in a few places, but not everywhere. 

U.S. President Barack Obama was put in a difficult position: He could choose to be on the side of dictators and against social movements, or to support relatively unknown actors and face the likely rise of anti-American groups. Given that the U.S. had historically supported dictators in the name of stability, the easy solution would have been the former – keep to the path set by predecessors and avoid people coming to power who are resentful of past U.S. foreign policy.  Complicating this further was not just Israel’s focus on stability above all else, but also the fact that the U.S. could not force events – it could not control who won and who lost. It could try to influence outcomes, but most of the dynamics were driven by domestic players – militaries, secret police, activists, and government officials. 


Libya was the one place where the U.S. and its allies did make a decisive impact. They helped to stop then Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s repression and mass killings. This past week’s events suggest that the Americans are now paying for their decision with blood, but that misses the complex reality of the attacks on the consulate. Most of Libya did not show up to attack the Americans, some Libyans died defending the consulate, and the government (what there is of it) and the people of the country have displayed much regret. 

Egypt is more problematic both because it is far more relevant to the entire region and because its leadership seems to be playing multiple games – appealing to extremists and trying not to offend the U.S. too much. Egypt’s new government had far more capacity to stop the attacks than Libya’s semi-government, and Egypt’s new president took more time to decide to express regrets, doing so only after President Obama indicated that Egypt is neither an ally nor an enemy.  Quite a change from being one of the U.S.’s best allies in the region. 

Since the American diplomats came under attack in these two countries, embassies elsewhere have come under assault. The key is not so much that there are crowds of Muslims antagonized by the outrageous anti-Muslim movie The Innocence of Muslims, but that governments have varied in their responses. Teams of 50 U.S. Marines can defend an embassy rather well, but that presents significant tradeoffs with Americans shooting into crowds. No, it is on the government of each country to protect the diplomatic representatives, and there is only so much the U.S. can do in these circumstances. Again, we have seen variation across the region, which points to the capabilities and interests of the governments. Can they stop crowds from mobilizing around U.S. embassies? Do they want to stop them?

There are decision points along the way where Obama has to figure out where to deploy forces, how to express threats, and so on, but this past week was not on his schedule. The U.S. does not control agendas in the Mideast or anywhere else, so it often has to respond to events, and is often forced to choose between options that range from bad to worse. 

Does this mean the U.S. is in decline? Not entirely. That the U.S. is the target of animus throughout the region means many things: that the free-speech rights that allow blasphemous movies to be made and disseminated are poorly understood, that the U.S. has had much history in this region, especially of late, and that the U.S. is a relevant actor that all countries in the region must consider. The tally Sunday night seemed to be 20 American embassies assaulted and one British. That puts decline into some perspective. 

The old line from the Spider-Man comic books is that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but we must remember that even great power does not mean control. The U.S. can, and does, influence events through what it does (Libya), and what it does not do (Bahrain, Syria). Yet, it cannot control the agenda, nor can it control outcomes. The actors on the ground have much to say about this, so we must be wary about attributing too much responsibility for what happens to actors outside the region.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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