Michael Young, December 4, 2009
It’s not often that Barack Obama and Hassan Nasrallah agree, but both made important speeches this week, and both appeared to concur that American power was on the decline.
Of course Obama didn’t quite put it that way. Instead, he merely implied the growing sense of American difficulty, the fact that the United States was “passing through a time of great trial,” which he made more palatable by sandwiching it between words of encouragement and resolve. His speech to West Point cadets on Tuesday was an effort to explain to his countrymen why it was important to send an additional 30,000 or so troops to Afghanistan. But what remained, despite the soaring rhetoric toward the end of the president’s speech, was the terrible burden all this placed on an America much gloomier than it was decades ago.
Obama chose to highlight domestic American rifts, when he remarked that “years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.” He drew attention to America’s economic travails by noting that “[i]n the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”
As for the American enterprise in Afghanistan, the centerpiece of Obama’s speech was that he would actually start withdrawing American soldiers by July 2011. No, the United States would not bankroll an Afghan nation-building project, because (and here the president sounded more like a shopkeeper than a purveyor of global domination) such a scheme “sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost.”
Obama has always prided himself on being a realistic assessor of American limitations. However, listening to Hassan Nasrallah gloat at the weakness of the United States, you had to wonder if the US president misses the point. Power and success are in many respects fruits of perception. Just look at Nasrallah himself, who persuaded many a fool that the hecatomb of 2006 was a divine victory for Lebanon. Modesty in the exercise of foreign policy is a bad idea, particularly for the leader of the world’s most powerful country, whose destabilization, whether we like it or not, only destabilizes the global political and economic order.
No doubt, Obama was walking a fine line in his West Point speech. He had to persuade a skeptical American public, but also a Democratic-led Congress that will have to explain to an uneasy electorate why it must help finance a massive increase in funding for Afghanistan (officially some $30 billion) at a time of economic crisis. However, the president might also want to consider how America is viewed overseas. He’s proud that everyone wishes him well, that everyone applauds George W. Bush’s exit, but as the initial European reaction to Obama’s speech showed, Europe remains stone cold about assisting the United States with more troops of its own. It no longer costs much to tell Washington “No”.
Expect America’s foes in the Middle East to take more advantage of this situation. The Iranian regime, rather visibly, does not believe the Obama administration will attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear capability. And Obama’s haste to get out of Iraq, or Afghanistan as soon as he can, like his bellyaches about the economic difficulties facing the republic, exhibit far too little American nerve to frighten Tehran.
In Lebanon, Iraq, and on the Palestinian front, to name only these, the US has also had little to show for itself. The “peace process”, which Obama had described as the centerpiece of his regional considerations, remains hopelessly stalled; the Obama administration is so keen to pull out of Iraq that it has looked the other way while Iran has continued to increase its influence in Baghdad, and while Syria has allowed more Al-Qaeda militants through its borders to murder Iraqi civilians.
As for Lebanon, in the last two years the Americans have seemed off balance. This is in part because their allies have switched sides, with the Saudis effectively approving a Syrian political return to the country and the March 14 majority consequently in disarray. But Washington has also done little to bolster Resolution 1701, which has been eroded thanks to systematic violations by all sides. And the US Embassy in Beirut has sometimes seemed more preoccupied with development projects than with Lebanon’s role in the regional rivalry between the US and Iran.
Obama’s caution is defensible in some regards. War alone cannot be the benchmark of American power. Nothing would do more to harm the US than for it to sink itself into myriad conflicts it cannot win outright. In some ways, however, Obama failed to pick up on that lesson in the political realm, making ambitious promises concerning several complex Middle Eastern issues, without setting clear priorities, so that today, with little progress evident in any of them, the president stands discredited.
The mounting perception of American weakness will, arguably, be the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East in the coming years. It will alarm Washington’s allies and empower its foes, and Barack Obama’s stiff-upper-lip displays of candor, his persistent enunciation of American inadequacies, will only make things worse. Power may be a source of great evil, but not nearly as much as a power vacuum.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.
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In: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, News, Middle East
Tags: Obama, wobbly, West Point speech, Nasrallah, Lebanon, Syrian complicity with Al Qaeda, Afghanistan,
Location: Beirut, Beyrouth, Lebanon (load item map)
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