Saturday, May 29, 2010

TomDispatch: The American Century Is So Over

There's a lot to chew on in this incisive, articulate overview
of US foreign policy. It surveys the world and is about double
in size of what I usually send you, but is well worth the viewing,
whether in sections or a big gulp, during this holiday weekend.

Obama's Flip-Flop Leadership Style

by Dilip Hiro
Tomgram: May 27, 2010

What do you make of it when Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal
now refers to the only significant offensive he's set in motion -- the
attempt to drive the Taliban out of Marjah, a collection of villages in
Helmand Province -- as "a bleeding ulcer"? Or what about his upcoming
summer "offensive" to drive the Taliban out of the second largest Afghan
city, Kandahar, which has recently been verbally downgraded from an
"operation" to something called "Cooperation for Kandahar," now also
referred to as a "military presence" so as not to offend local sensibilities
with a hint of the coming violence. What do you make of it when Dion
Nissenbaum and Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers report in mid-May
that the American non-operation in Kandahar, scarcely beginning, is already
showing signs of "faltering," while Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post
describes it as a "go-for-broke move that even its authors are unsure will
succeed," adding: "There is no Plan B."

Or what about when Gareth Porter, who has been doing top-notch reporting on
the Afghan War for Inter Press Service, points out McChrystal's striking
recent Kandahar flip-flop. Back in March, his team was talking about
getting rid of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half-brother Wali Karzai,
Kandahar's major powerbroker, a man reputedly deeply involved in the drug
trade, and an asset or former asset of the CIA. ("The only way to clean up
Chicago," said McChrystal's intelligence chief General Michael Flynn back
then, "is to get rid of Capone.") More recently, however, they have executed
a 180-degree turn and decided not only to leave him in place, but to
intensify their work with him. "The reaffirmation of ties between the U.S.
and [Wali] Karzai," writes Porter, "ensures that the whole military effort
in the province is locked into Karzai's political strategy for maintaining
his grip on power."

Consider this but a brief snapshot of Obama's flailing war in Afghanistan.
As TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro makes clear in his latest canny analysis,
the president of what was, until recently, the global power is losing his
grip not just on Afghanistan, but on the planet. Hiro, whose latest book,
After Empire: The Birth of A Multipolar World, offers a deep look into
international power shifts, has been writing about the downward slope of
American power at this site since 2007. Tom

The American Century Is So Over

Obama's Rudderless Foreign Policy Underscores America's Waning Power

By Dilip Hiro

Irrespective of their politics, flawed leaders share a common trait. They
generally remain remarkably oblivious to the harm they do to the nation they
lead. George W. Bush is a salient recent example, as is former British Prime
Minister Tony Blair. When it comes to foreign policy, we are now witnessing
a similar phenomenon at the Obama White House.

Here is the Obama pattern: Choose a foreign leader to pressure. Threaten
him with dire consequences if he does not bend to Washington's will. When he
refuses to submit and instead responds vigorously, back off quickly and
overcompensate for failure by switching into a placatory mode.

In his first year-plus in office, Barack Obama has provided us with enough
examples to summarize his leadership style. The American president fails to
objectively evaluate the strength of the cards that a targeted leader holds
and his resolve to play them.

Obama's propensity to retreat at the first sign of resistance shows that
he lacks both guts and the strong convictions that are essential elements
distinguishing statesmen from politicians. By pursuing a rudderless course
in his foreign policy, by flip-flopping in his approach to other leaders, he
is also inadvertently furnishing hard evidence to those who argue that
American power is on the decline -- and that the downward slide of the
former "sole superpower" is irreversible.

Those who have refused to buckle under Obama's initial threats and
hardball tactics (and so the impact of American power) include not just the
presidents of China, a first-tier mega-nation, and Brazil, a rising major
power, but also the leaders of Israel, a regional power heavily dependent on
Washington for its sustenance, and Afghanistan, a client state -- not to
mention the military junta of Honduras, a minor entity, which stood up to
the Obama administration as if it were the Politburo of former Soviet Union.

Flip-Flop on Honduras

By overthrowing the civilian government of President Manuel Zelaya in June
2009, the Honduran generals acquired the odious distinction of carrying out
the first military coup in Central America in the post-Cold War era. What
drove them to it? The precipitating factor was Zelaya's decision to have a
non-binding survey on holding a referendum that November about convening a
Constituent Assembly to redraft the constitution.

Denouncing the coup as a "terrible precedent" for the region and demanding
its reversal, President Obama initially insisted: "We do not want to go back
to a dark past. We always want to stand with democracy."

Those words should have been followed by deeds like recalling his
ambassador in Tegucigalpa (just as Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador,
Nicaragua, and Venezuela did) and an immediate suspension of the American
aid on which the country depends. Instead, what followed was a statement by
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the administration would not
formally designate the ouster as a military coup "for now" -- even though
the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European
Union had already done so.

This backtracking encouraged the Honduran generals and their Republican
supporters in Congress. They began to stonewall, while a top notch public
relations firm in Washington, hired by the de facto government of the
military's puppet president Roberto Micheletti, went to work.

These moves proved enough to weaken the "democratic" resolve of a
president who makes lofty speeches, but lacks strong convictions when it
comes to foreign policy. Secretary of State Clinton then began talking of
reconciling the ousted president and the Micheletti government, treating the
legitimate and illegitimate camps as equals.

Having realized that a hard line stance vis-à-vis Washington was paying
dividends, the Honduran generals remained unbending. Only when Clinton
insisted that the State Department would not recognize the November
presidential election result because of doubts about it being free, fair,
and transparent did they agree to a compromise a month before the poll. They
would let Zelaya return to the presidential palace to finish his term in

That was when rightwing Republican Senator Jim DeMint, a fanatical
supporter of the Honduran generals, swung into action. He would give
Republican consent to White House nominees for important posts in Latin
America only if Clinton agreed to recognize the election results,
irrespective of what happened to Zelaya. Clinton buckled.

As a result, Obama became one of only two leaders -- the other being
Panama's president -- in the 34-member Organization of American States to
lend his support to the Honduran presidential poll. What probably appeared
as a routine trade-off in domestic politics on Capitol Hill was seen by the
international community as a humiliating retreat by Obama when challenged by
a group of Honduran generals. Other leaders undoubtedly took note.

A far more dramatic reversal awaited Obama when he locked horns with
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Wily Netanyahu Trumps Naïve Obama

On taking office, the Obama White House announced with much fanfare that
it would take on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute right away. On
examining the 2003 "road map" to peace backed by the United Nations, the
United States, Russia, and the European Union, it discovered Israel's
promise to cease all settlement-building activity.

In his first meeting with Netanyahu in mid-May 2009, Obama demanded a halt
to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and occupied East
Jerusalem, already housing nearly 500,000 Jews. He argued that they were a
major obstacle to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Netanyahu balked -- and changed tack by stressing the existential threat
that Iran's nuclear program posed to Israel.

Obama slipped into the Israeli leader's trap. At their joint press
conference, he linked the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with the Iranian
nuclear threat. Then, to Netanyahu's delight, he gave Tehran "until the end
of the year" to respond to his diplomatic overtures. In this way, the wily
prime minister got the American president to accept his linkage of two
unrelated issues while offering nothing in return.

Later, Netanyahu would differentiate between the ongoing expansion of
present Jewish settlements and the creation of new ones, with no compromise
on the former. He would also draw a clear distinction between the West Bank
and East Jerusalem which, he would insist, was an integral part of the
"indivisible, eternal capital of Israel," and therefore exempt from any
restrictions on Jewish settlements.

Reflecting the Obama administration's style, Clinton offered a strong
verbal riposte: "No exceptions to Israeli settlement freeze". These would
prove empty words that changed nothing on the ground.

When Netanyahu publicly rejected Obama's demand for a halt to settlement
construction in the West Bank, Obama raised the stakes, suggesting that
Israeli intransigence endangered American security.

On October 15th, after much back-channel communication between the two
governments, Netanyahu announced that he had terminated the settlements
talks with Washington. Having said this, he offered to curb some settlement
construction during a later meeting with Clinton. This won him the secretary
of state's effusive praise for an "unprecedented" gesture, and a call for
the unconditional resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

The Palestinians were flabbergasted by this American volte-face. "I
believe that the U.S. condones continued settlement expansion," said stunned
Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib. "Negotiations are about
ending the occupation and settlement expansion is about entrenching the

In December, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month moratorium on settlement
building, but only after his government had given permission for the
construction of 3,000 new apartments in the occupied West Bank. Sticking to
their original position, the Palestinians refused to revive peace talks
until there was a total freeze on settlement activity.

On March 9, 2010, just as Vice-President Joe Biden arrived in Jerusalem as
part of Washington's campaign to kick-start the peace process, the Israeli
authorities announced the approval of yet more building -- 1,600 new homes
in East Jerusalem. This audacious move, meant to underline Israel's defiance
of Washington, left Biden -- as well as Obama -- fuming.

With the House of Representatives adopting his health reform bill on March
24th, Obama was on a domestic roll when he met Netanyahu in Washington the
next day. He reportedly laid out three conditions for defusing the crisis:
an extension of the freeze on Jewish settlement expansion beyond September
2010; an end to further Jewish settlement projects in East Jerusalem; and
withdrawal of the Israeli forces to the positions held before the Second
Intifada in September 2000. He then left Netanyahu at the White House to
consult with his advisers and get back to him if "there is anything new."
Again, however, as with the Honduran generals Obama's tough talk remained
just that: talk.

The purpose of all this activity was to get the Palestinians to resume
peace negotiations with Israel, which they had broken off when that country
attacked the Gaza Strip in December 2008. Netanyahu was prepared to talk as
long as no preconditions were set by the Palestinians.

In the end, he got what he wanted. He met neither Palestinian
preconditions nor those of the Obama administration. Simply put, it was
Obama who bent to Netanyahu's will. The tail wagged the dog.

The hapless officials of the Palestinian Authority read the writing on the
wall. After some ritual huffing and puffing, they agreed to participate in
"proximity talks" with the Netanyahu government in which Washington's Middle
East envoy, George Mitchell, would shuttle back and forth between the two
sides. These started on May 9th. Over the next four months, Mitchell's tough
task will be to try to narrow the yawning differences on the terms of
Palestinian statehood -- when both sides now know that Obama will shy away
from pressuring Israel where it hurts.

Spat With China, Then a Sudden Thaw

Obama's problems with the People's Republic of China (PRC) began in
November 2009 when, to his disappointment, the Chinese government failed to
accord him the royal treatment he had expected on his first visit to the

Washington-Beijing relations cooled further when the Obama administration
greenlighted the sale of $6.4 billion worth of advanced weaponry to Taiwan,
including anti-missile missiles, and Obama met the Dalai Lama, Tibet's
spiritual leader, at the White House. The PRC regards Taiwan as a breakaway
province and Tibet as an integral part of the republic.

Senior U.S. officials described the moves as part of Obama's concerted
drive to "push back" at China which, in his view, was punching above its
weight. Along with these moves went unrelenting pressure on Beijing, in
private and in public, to revalue its currency, the yuan. The
administration repeatedly highlighted a legal provision requiring the
Treasury Department to report twice a year on any country that has been
manipulating the rate of exchange between its currency and the American
dollar to gain unfair advantage in international trade. That the next due
date for such a report -- a preamble to possible sanctions -- was April 15th
was repeated by U.S. officials ad nauseam.

In mid-April, Obama was convening an international summit on nuclear
security in Washington. He was eager to have as many heads of state as
possible attend. At the very least, he wanted the leaders of the four
nuclear powers with U.N. Security Council vetoes -- Britain, France, Russia,
and China -- present.

That provided Chinese President Hu Jintao with a powerful card to play at
a moment when a White House threat to name his country as a currency
manipulator hung over his head. He refused to attend the Washington nuclear
summit. Obama blinked. He postponed the Treasury Department's judgment day.
In return, Hu came and met Obama at the White House.

That tensions existed between Beijing and Washington did not surprise
China's leaders, a collective of hard-nosed realists. Their attitude was
reflected in an editorial in the official newspaper, the China Daily, soon
after Obama's inauguration. "U.S. leaders have never been shy about talking
about their country's ambition," it said. "For them, it is divinely granted
destiny no matter what other nations think." The editorial went on to
predict that "Obama's defense of U.S. interests will inevitably clash with
those of other nations." And so they have, repeatedly.

Such realism contrasted starkly with the mood prevalent at the White House
where it was naively believed that a few well scripted speeches in foreign
capitals by the eloquent new president would restore U.S. prestige left in
tatters by George W. Bush's policies. What the president and his coterie
seem not to have noticed, however, was an important Pew Research Center
poll. It showed that, following Obama's public diplomacy campaign, while the
image of the U.S. had indeed risen sharply in Europe, Mexico, and Brazil,
any improvement was minor in India and China, marginal in the Arab Middle
East, and nonexistent in Russia, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Stuck in its self-congratulatory mode, the Obama team paid scant attention
to the full range of options that other powers had for retaliating to its
pressure. For instance, it did not foresee Beijing threatening sanctions
against major American companies supplying weapons to Taiwan, nor did it
anticipate the stiff resistance the PRC would offer to revaluing the yuan.

Some attributed Beijing's behavior to a rising Chinese nationalism and the
fears of its leaders that bending under pressure from "foreigners" would
play poorly at home. But the real reasons for Chinese resistance had more to
do with hard economics than popular sentiment. In the wake of the Great
Recession of 2008-09, symbolized by the collapse of the gigantic Lehman
Brothers investment bank, China's leaders noted tectonic changes occurring
in the international economic balance of power -- at the expense of the
hitherto "sole superpower."

While the U.S. and European economies contracted, Beijing quickly adopted
policies aimed at boosting domestic demand and infrastructure investment.
This resulted in impressive expansion: 9% growth in the gross domestic
product in 2009 with a prediction of 12% in the current year. This led
Goldman Sachs' analysts to advance their forecast of the year when China
would become the globe's number one economy from 2050 to 2027.

For the first time since World War II, it was not the United States that
pulled the rest of the world out of negative growth, but China. The U.S. has
emerged from the financial carnage as the most heavily indebted nation on
Earth, and China as its leading creditor with an unprecedented $2.4 trillion
in foreign reserves.

Its cash-rich corporations are now buying companies and future natural
resources from Australia to Peru, Canada to Afghanistan where, last year,
the Congjiang Copper Group, a Chinese corporation, offered $3.4 billion --
$1 billion more than the highest bid by a Western metallurgy company -- to
secure the right to mine copper from one of the richest deposits on the

Karzai the Menace Becomes Karzai the Indispensable

On assuming the presidency, Obama made no secret of his dislike for his
Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai. To circumvent his central government's
pervasive corruption, senior American officials came up with the idea of
dealing directly with Afghan provincial and district governors. In the
presidential election of August 2009, their preference for Abdullah
Abdullah, a serious rival to Karzai, was widely known.

When Karzai resorted to massive vote rigging to ensure his reelection and
turned a deaf ear to Washington's exhortations to clean up his
administration, Obama decided to use a stick to bring Washington's latest
client regime in line. In a dramatic gesture, he undertook an air journey of
26 hours -- from Washington to Kabul -- over the last weekend in March to
deliver a 26-minute lecture to Karzai on the corruption and administrative
ineptitude of his government. The Afghan leader had few options but to
listen in stony silence.

When, however, Karzai read a news story in which an unnamed senior
American military official suggested that his younger half-brother, Ahmed
Wali, the power broker in the southern province of Kandahar, deserved to be
put on the Pentagon's current list of drug barons to be killed or captured,
his patience snapped.

An incensed Afghan president responded by claiming that the U.S. was
deliberately intensifying and widening the war in Afghanistan in order to
stay in the region and dominate it. He added that, if Washington's pressure
continued, he might join the Taliban. (He had, in fact, been a significant
fundraiser for the Taliban after they captured Kabul in September 1996.)

Obama reacted as he had done in the past. When facing a serious challenge,
he retreated. From being a stick wielder he morphed into a carrier of
carrots during a Karzai visit to Washington early this month (that, in
March, administration officials were threatening to postpone indefinitely).

The high point of the wooing of Karzai -- worthy of being included in a
modern version of Alice in Wonderland -- was a dinner Vice-President Joe
Biden gave for the Afghan dignitary at his residence. At the very least
Karzai must have been bemused. In February, Biden had staged a dramatic
walk-out halfway through a dinner at the Afghan president's palace after
Karzai denied that his government was corrupt or that, if it was, he was at

Despite the Obama administration's "red carpet treatment" and "charm
offensive," Karzai was boldly honest at a joint press conference with Obama
when he described Iran as "our bother country, our friend."

The same sentiments would soon be expressed by another leader -- in

President da Silva Thumbs His Nose at Obama

Ever since assuming the presidency of Brazil in 2003, Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva has, when necessary, not hesitated to challenge U.S. policy moves. He
has clashed with Washington on world trade (the Doha round), global warming,
and continuing U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

In December 2008, he chaired a meeting of 31 Latin American and Caribbean
countries, which excluded the United States, at the Brazilian tourist resort
of Sauipe. The next month, instead of going to the World Economic Forum at
Davos, Switzerland, da Silva attended the Eighth World Social Forum at Belem
at the mouth of the Amazon River.

He was critical of the way Obama compromised democracy in Honduras, and,
despite the Obama administration's dismay and opposition, he invited Iranian
president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brasilia in November 2009 for talks on the
Iranian nuclear program, his first attempt at high-profile international
diplomacy. (A week earlier he had warmly received Israeli president Shimon
Peres in the Brazilian capital.) Six months later, he paid a return visit
to Tehran -- and made history, much to the chagrin of Washington.

Acting in tandem with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, da
Silva revived a putative October 2009 nuclear agreement and brokered an
unexpected deal with Ahmadinejad. Iran agreed to ship 1,200 kilograms of
its low-enriched uranium to Turkey; in return, Russia and France would
provide 120 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium for a medical research reactor
in Tehran.

Taken by surprise and rattled by the success of Brazil and Turkey in the
face of American disapproval, the Obama administration reverted to the
stance of the Bush White House and demanded that Iran suspend its program to
enrich nuclear fuel. It then moved to push an agreement on further U.N.
sanctions against Iran, as if the Brazilians and Turks had accomplished

This refusal to register reality was myopic at best. The blinkered view of
the present White House ignores salient global facts. The influence of
mid-level powers on the world stage is on the rise. Their leaders feel --
rightly -- that they can ignore or bypass the Obama administration's
demands. And, on the positive side, they can come together on certain
international issues and take diplomatic initiatives of their own with a
fair chance of success.

By now, from Afghanistan to Honduras, Brazil to China, global leaders
large and small increasingly sense that the Obama administration's bark is
worse than its bite, and though the U.S. remains a major power, it is no
longer the determinative one. The waning of the truncated American Century
is by now irreversible.

Dilip Hiro is the author of 32 books, the latest being After Empire: The
Birth of A Multipolar World (Nation Books).

Copyright 2010 Dilip Hiro

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