Global Turmoil Demonstrates Limits of US Power

Edited by Gillian Palmer

The conflicts in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, and the tensions in Southeast Asia form an extremely unstable world stage.

When some part of the planet catches fire, the world usually looks to the United States in search of a response. But during this summer of concurrent conflicts in the Middle East, which have substantially increased the risks to peace in Europe and in Asia, Barack Obama looks like a president overwhelmed and incapable with dealing with all of the alarms.

The seismographs in Washington are registering worrying signals. Few U.S. presidents in the last few decades have confronted a similar succession of crises that have not directly been caused by their actions. The standard practice is for the president — the leader of the free world, as was said not so long ago — to try to mold the world to his liking, not the other way around.

Strobe Talbott, president of the think tank Brookings Institution, currently observes “disturbing and alarming”* echoes of the summer of 1914, when World War I broke out.

Senior Sen. John McCain, a hawk in foreign policy, remarked in an interview with the television network CNN that he had never seen the world “in greater turmoil.”

The Wall Street Journal commented last week that “the breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s.” In 1979, with Jimmy Carter in the White House, the United States lost its key ally in the Middle East — the Shah of Persia — in the Iranian revolution, while the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

“I don’t think that the most appropriate analogy is that of the ‘70s,”* argues Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign policy and defense in the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. “Looking back, this reminds me of the period between wars — of the ‘30s — and of the years before World War I, 1913 and 1914. There is so much instability, so many adverse players, so many irredentist claims, so few parties willing to support a global framework that the present period truly represents an enormous challenge to the security of the American people,” she reasons.*

In Ukraine, the likely involuntary downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight on July 17 hasn’t silenced any guns; rather, it has led to heightened rhetoric between Washington and Moscow — Obama accuses Putin of having armed and trained the insurgents accused of the attack — and escalated conflict in the east of the country.

The new war that began almost three weeks ago between Israel and the Hamas organization, which controls the Gaza Strip, has left more than 1,000 Palestinians and 43 Israelis dead (40 of those from the Israeli side were soldiers).

The violence in Libya — where the United States contributed to the 2011 regime change — has forced the U.S. Embassy to evacuate its office in the capital city of Tripoli.

More than 160,000 people, according to some calculations, have died during the three years of civil war in Syria — a conflict in which Obama resisted getting involved, despite showing brief signs in September 2013 of an intervention he suspended at the last minute. In neighboring Iraq, the advances of Sunni jihadis have forced the United States to send more military troops to aid the government of the Shiite Nouri al-Maliki.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military withdrawal planned for the end of 2016 threatens to ignite the war again and clear the way for the Taliban. And in the Asia-Pacific region, China has engaged in skirmishes in the last few months with countries like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines in search of control of the emerging Asian power’s area of influence.

“We live in a complex world and at a challenging time,” said Obama in a press conference in the middle of July. “None of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions, but all of them require American leadership. And as commander in chief, I’m confident that if we stay patient and determined, that we will, in fact, meet these challenges.”

Brian Katulis, senior investigator of the progressive think tank the Center for American Progress, praises the “pragmatic, cautious and wise”* reaction to the crisis from the Obama administration. “President Obama has been very careful during his entire term not to overreact,”* says Katulis, who described the current situation as a moment of “seamless transformation.”*

“Obama’s philosophy is that we should work with partners and allies as much as possible, but that we shouldn’t assume the burden alone, as the Bush administration tried to do with very negative consequences to the United States,”* he continues.

That which Katulis refers to as Obama’s philosophy coincides strongly with the opinion of the majority of North Americans, according to recent polls, who are in favor of the United States taking care of its own affairs and staying out of Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. At the same time, they want their president to serve as a global leader.

“I’m not sure that both positions are incompatible,”* says Alan Murray, president of the [nonpartisan] organization Pew Research Center. “The American people don’t want to go to war, but they have the feeling that their president is showing weakness,”* he says. And that is not pleasing.

Pletka, identified with the neoconservative movement that contributed to the design of the 2003 Iraq war, thinks that there is a direct link between Obama’s retreat — the withdrawal from Iraq, the paralysis in the face of the Syrian war, the rejection of unilateral action — and the conflicts of this summer.

“It’s no secret,”* says Pletka, “that many people think that the president has renounced his responsibility and has retreated without giving much thought to what could happen — in the case of the withdrawal from Iraq, which has turned out to be a complete disaster; the indifference toward the killings in Syria for three years; the inaction in the face of the growth of al-Qaida; the indifference toward the Russian annexation of Crimea; and the inaction in the presence of the predatory behavior of the Chinese in the South and East China Seas … And we could keep going for a while.”*

When asked if there wasn’t instability, perhaps more so than now, in the years of the Iraq war and President Bush, Pletka replies, “With the Bush administration, what conflicts were there other than the ones that we chose to have?”* And she adds, “If they asked me to trade the world of 2007 for the world of 2014, the choice is easy, as I imagine it would be for the majority of people in the Near East and Eastern Europe.”*

All Obama’s fault? “Sometimes,”* comments Katulis, “I think that if an asteroid crashed against a planet 100 million light years away, Obama’s critics would say that it’s because of something that he has done.”*

*Editor’s Note: These quotations, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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