Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Is America A Declining Power? Its Friends Think So and They Are Scared

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By Barry Rubin

“What do you think,” asked the reporter, "about the U.S. pressure on China?”

Puzzled, I responded, “What pressure on China?”

And then I realized what he meant. Like many observers, especially those in the Third World, he thinks U.S. policy is tightly coordinated. In other words, he thinks that the United States was about to sell arms to Beijing’s rival, Taiwan, and have the Dalai Lama, who claims to be the rightful ruler of Chinese-occupied Tibet, come to Washington and meet Obama as part of a grand scheme to force China into supporting sanctions against Iran.

This is, partly, where conspiracy theories come from, assuming that every step taken by the United States is carefully planned out and that every event in the world—given American power—is part of a larger scheme. Why believe that the United States itself blew up the World Trade Center? Based on the assumption that the United States is too strong, its intelligence too good, to let a bunch of barely trained terrorists enter country, board planes, and fly them into its tallest building.

It’s sort of a compliment. But of course, the September 11, 2001, attacks did succeed due partly to a mix of American democratic openness and incompetent naiveté (plus luck, of course).

And increasingly the idea of an omnipotent United States, whose wrath must be feared and protection is worth cultivating, is sharply on the decline in today's world. Which is, after all, what President Barack Obama is doing in practice.  But he should be careful what he wishes for because that's what's happening.

In fact, the United States is not pressuring China to raise sanctions against Iran, though it is politely asking it to do so. Indeed, there are some interesting clues here to anyone curious about whether the United States is a declining power. Like clues in any mystery, they are very small and have to be examined carefully under a magnifying glass.

On her first visit to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly—publicly, mind you—announced that human rights would not be an issue in U.S.-China relations. It is one thing for a U.S. government to play down the question in direct talks, but to announce publicly it was off the table, getting nothing in return, is quite a concession. In diplomacy, concessions are not supposed to be given to make others like you but to obtain a concession in exchange. If the Chinese government believes her, that is a green light for it to act in a more repressive manner.

Come to think of it, the administration in effect did the same thing to the Iranian regime after the stolen election until Iran’s obvious intransigence and public pressure at home forced President Barack Obama to reverse himself somewhat.

Then on another trip, Clinton made as her main publicized argument for China to back sanctions on Iran that unless it did so Israel might attack Iran. That is, she was avoiding any threat of U.S. action against China (support sanctions or we’ll hurt you) or the idea that China must act or the United States would have to do so (support sanctions or one day America may have to attack Iran, whether or not that is true it is a bargaining ploy) but only based on the actions of a third party, Israel.

The implication is American weakness in three respects, saying in effect, we won't pressure you directly, we won't do anything and we cannot stop our ally from acting either.

This is the approach taken by an administration that wants to avoid the use of power at almost all costs, and dozens of other examples can be cited to demonstrate that point. And, by the way, the United States has borrowed so much money from China that Beijing is probably more likely to pressure Washington than vice-versa.

What the Obama Administration has repeatedly signaled other countries can be defined along the following lines:

--To enemies: We are sorry, let’s engage, we’ll make compromises and work out all our problems.

--To key neutrals with whom the United States has ok relations (like Russia, China, and Pakistan): We need you more than you need us.

--To friends outside of Western Europe: We won’t necessarily back you against your enemies. To me the single most shocking example is the refusal to back Iraqi complaints about Syrian sponsorship of terrorism (which also killed Americans) against it, but there are many more.

--To Western Europeans: We won’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to do and if we do you can safely ignore us.

Is this above classification 100 percent fair? No, exceptions can be found. But it is not a distorted picture either.

This is a portrait of a president and an administration which wants to be popular above almost all things, which seeks to avoid conflict, which is apologetic about American power, that not only accepts but endorses the idea that America should not be the world's leader. This is not a liberal foreign policy in the tradition of a Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. It is something new, well beyond anything Jimmy Carter did or said.

It could be argued that this posture is a necessary downplaying of international affairs to focus on domestic issues. The problem is that such a posture invites, rather than defuses, problems. At any rate, contrary to the pre-inaugural predictions of Vice President Joe Biden, the administration has not yet faced a single major crisis. But I don’t think that can be attributed to this strategy and how much longer will its luck hold? Long, one hopes.

One thing, however, should be clear: this is not a retreat forced on America by changes in the world. Neither America's friends, nor even those somewhere in the middle, are demanding that the United States step down from leadership. True, the Western Europeans and some others wanted the United States to be less strident than the preceding Bush administration but not like this.

All this brings us to Lech Walesa, revered leader of Poland’s struggle against both Soviet and Communist tyranny. He has now taken the unprecedented step of going to Illinois to endorse a Republican candidate for governor there. The candidate is a Polish-American but still this is an amazing thing for Walesa to do. It is a signal of how truly upset he is and he is far from being alone.

During his visit, Walesa said:

"The US does not lead morally or politically anymore. The world has no leadership. The United States was always the last resort and hope for all other nations. That was the hope, that whenever something was going wrong, one could count on the United States. Today we lost that hope."

Why did Walesa say such a thing? Obviously, there is a general worry throughout many countries about the weakness of the Obama administration. But there’s more:

--Poland had gone out on a limb to accept American defensive missiles, nominally against Iran but really as a sign of U.S. commitment to protect Poland from Russia.

--Not only did the Obama administration change the plan (which is justifiable regarding the anti-Iran defenses argument but not the wider and real strategic purpose) but it did so without consulting the Polish government which was only informed at the last minute.

--The decision was announced on September 17, 2009, which everyone in Central Europe knew was the 60th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, followed by the annexation of eastern Poland to the USSR.

It was a triple slap in the face of Poland and every nation which regained independence from Soviet tyranny.

But that’s not all. Everyone but the Central Europeans seems to have forgotten an open letter sent to Obama last July by 22 top Central European figures, including 7 former prime ministers or presidents, and 9 former foreign or defense ministers begging him not to abandon them. Walesa was one of them.

The letter stated:

“We know from our own historical experience the difference between when the United States stood up for its liberal democratic values and when it did not. Our region suffered when the United States [accepted Soviet domination over it] And it benefited when the United States used its power to fight for principle.”

Six months later there has been no change. The Obama administration didn't even deign to respond to this  distinguished group with a reassuring answer.

Not only is the Obama administration failing to stand up for liberal democratic values—and I mean here not just advocating democracy abroad but even more importantly supporting democratic friends and opposing expansionist dictatorships—but arguably it is not even standing up for U.S. interests.

Even the South American reporter interviewing me, the conversation mentioned at the start of this article, evinced a fear for his own country given the lack of U.S. leadership and failure to oppose dictatorships like Iran and Venezuela.

The good news is that the problem does not arise from America’s people or its military strength or even its economic difficulties. A lack of will, a thirst for empty popularity, and an ideological orientation among its current leaders is to blame.

These factors can be easily remedied if those in power come to understand that they must use power. And I’m not talking here about attacking anybody militarily but combating them by rallying friends and creating a clear, coordinated strategy, toughness, and determined diplomatic efforts.

Many, who support the administration, no doubt find this analysis to be unfair, biased, or even ridiculous. But here’s the problem: a very long list of examples can be provided as evidence of this fact and almost nothing can be added up in the other column.
For people who boast about listening to the rest of the world, they should start listening to the rest of the world that is friendly toward the United States.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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