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America is exceptional – utterly and absolutely exceptional – because the rest of the world depends on American guns, American money and American mediation in a way that no other country or combination of countries possibly might replace. Any other power that suffered the setbacks that America sustained during 2010 under the Barack Obama presidency would have been pushed off the top of the hill. The reason America still has diplomatic currency to spend in Asia as well as actual currency to borrow demonstrates its indispensable role: no one, least of all Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao or Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wants America to fail.
That is why a conspiracy of silence surrounds the observation that the emperor is naked. But the facts are depressingly clear.
After one trillion dollars and 5,000 casualties, America will leave Iraq with nothing to show for its Quixotic commitment to build a nation in the Mesopotamian sand. As Steven Lee Meyers reported on December 18 in The New York Times, “The protracted political turmoil that saw the resurgence of a fiercely anti-American political bloc here is casting new doubt on establishing any enduring American military role in Iraq after the last of nearly 50,000 troops are scheduled to withdraw in the next 12 months, military and administration officials say.” The pro-Iranian government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will eliminate America’s role in Iraq after America’s scheduled withdrawal.
Four years after Lebanon’s “Green” revolution, hailed by the George W. Bush administration as an exemplar of Middle Eastern democracy, the formerly pro-Western (that is, Saudi-allied) Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, went to Iran as a supplicant in December to endorse Iran’s dominant role in that country. Hariri’s government includes men who have come under suspicion of ordering the assassination in 2005 of his father, the ex-premier Rafik Hariri. “In contrast with Iran’s muscle-flexing, the moderate Arab states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, appear weak while preparing the ground for new leadership as their rulers age. Concurrently, America’s influence, as demonstrated in WikiLeaks documents, is on the wane, due to its withdrawal from Iraq, the deepening morass in Afghanistan and its domestic economic woes, ” columnist Amos Harel wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on December 17.
Russia is holding America’s feet to the fire over ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) nuclear weapons treaty which – stripped to essentials – forces the world’s only first-rate power to deal with a vanquished second-rate power as equals. Russian surface-to-air missiles and other technology remains an instrument of blackmail against the US.
As US Senator Richard Luger wrote on his website on December 19, “A rejection of New START would be greeted with delight in Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Burma [Myanmar]. These nations want to shield their weapons programs from outside scrutiny and they want to be able to acquire sensitive weapons technologies.”
America’s capacity to punish Pakistan for its ongoing support of the Taliban as an anti-Indian force in the region has reached the vanishing point. “If America cut off spare parts for Pakistan’s F-16’s,” an advisor to former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal observed, “they’d be flying Chinese planes the next day.”
China wants Pakistan to continue to maintain pressure on India, and has visions of a warm water port on the Indian Ocean linked by rail to China.
After years of offering Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez all carrots and no sticks, the South American rogue state is ready to install Iranian medium-range missiles on its territory close enough to reach Washington, the German daily Die Welt reported on November 25. No one offered more carrots than Obama, who went out of his way to shake hands with Chavez at the April 2009 meeting of the Organization of American States. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it well might be able to hit Washington in a few minutes’ flight time.
American attempts to contain North Korea collapsed in December when the North shelled a disputed South Korean-held island, killing South Korean civilians – after likely being behind the unprovoked sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. North Korea also presumably is supplying fuel for Iran’s nuclear program.
And last, but not least, at the Group of 20 meeting in Seoul in November the United States suffered the worst rebuff to its global economic stance since the Europeans forced president Richard Nixon to delink the dollar from gold in 1971. The Federal Reserve’s new “quantitative easing” campaign was a buck too far.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble described the Fed as “clueless” in a newspaper interview, and Asian nations began to impose exchange controls to stop the septic tide of dollars from creating bubbles in their own economies. It’s worse than in 1980, when then Fed chairman Paul Volcker returned from an October meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Belgrade and pushed the fed funds rate into double digits. At least in those days criticism of the Fed was made behind closed doors.
Most ominous is that China, long the mainstay of the US Treasury market, became a net seller of long-term US Treasury securities in October. The run-up in US long-term interest rates, which pushed the 10-year Treasury yield almost a full percentage point above its August low, is in large part the result of Asian reluctance to continue to buy America’s long-term debt.
Never before in the course of strategic events have so few done so much damage to so many in such a short period of time. The “few,” to be precise, are Obama and the tiny coterie of advisors through whom he runs the government. Obama was true to his baffling words before the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2009: “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” Obama told the United Nations on September 23. “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.”
In my year-end review for 2009 (Life and premature death of Pax Obamicana) I warned:
History speaks of a PaxRomana, a Pax Britannica, and a Pax Americana – but no other namable eras of sustained peace, for the simple reason cited by Henry Kissinger: nothing maintains peace except hegemony and the balance of power. The balancing act always fails, though, as it did in Europe in 1914, and as it will in Central and South Asia precisely a century later. The result will be suppurating instability in the region during the next two years and a slow but deadly drift toward great-power animosity. Those who wanted an end to US hegemony will get what they wished for. But they won’t like it.
America’s competitors have seen the erosion of American power as if through a time-lapse camera, and they don’t like it at all. Obama’s self-shrinkage of American influence may give us a civil war in Iraq, a new Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, a nuclear-armed Iran, a replay of the Cuban missile crisis in Venezuela, an unshackled rogue state in North Korea, an ungovernable Pakistan, and – worst of all – another American recession as the US Treasury struggles to fund a government deficit in excess of 12 percentage points of gross domestic product. Confronted with the consequences of a naked emperor in Washington, the other powers of the world can only avert their eyes and hope he will get some clothes before it is too late.
Having renounced hegemony as well as the balance of power, Obama by year-end chose to prop up the power balance in the region with additional American and allied soldiers in Afghanistan. Obama chose the least popular as well as the least effective alternative. The US president’s apparent fecklessness reflects the gravity of the strategic problems in the region.