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

February 5, 2010

Barry Rubin
Right Side News
February 3, 2010  

"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 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.

Take the Dalai Lama, for example. When he visited
Washington the last time, Obama-reversing the
behavior of his three predecessors-refused to
meet with him. 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).
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