Politics & Policy

The Embarrassed Superpower

President Obama oversees a lengthening list of national humiliations.

When Barack Obama said he’d conduct our affairs with more humility, little did we know he meant he’d humiliate us.

He is allowing a vicious little tin-pot dictator to fight us to a standstill in Libya without bestirring himself to do much of anything about it. His latest initiative is to fly two unmanned drones over Libya to send a signal to Moammar Qaddafi about our seriousness. He must have thought sending three unmanned drones — strong letter to follow — would have been unduly harsh.

Obama launched the war with an unconditional demand that Qaddafi’s forces leave Ajdabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya. After an initial American barrage, Obama outsourced the war to Britain and France, regardless of their ability to make good on his own demands. In an interview the other day, the president noted that the war was becoming a stalemate on the ground, as if he were an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations commenting on a matter with which he had no direct connection.

In the worst days of American inaction during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, French president Jacques Chirac said, “The position of the leader of the free world is vacant.” Pres. Bill Clinton eventually got over his indecision and bombed the Serbs. President Obama seems to want to leave the position of the leader of the free world vacant deliberately, to prove a point about our limits and our deference to others. He’s holding an ongoing world seminar on the dispensability of the formerly indispensable nation.

Obama’s America is a country whose commander-in-chief makes highly conditional suggestions in the guise of unconditional demands, whose allies can’t count on it, whose interests and values are negotiable. It is the embarrassed superpower, wishing away its unparalleled influence and seeking to hide behind euphemism and multilateral fictions. (It’s not “a war” in Libya, and besides it’s NATO, not us, fighting to a draw.)

When protests broke out in Syria, a country run by an Assad family mafia that has facilitated the killing of American soldiers in Iraq, Obama could barely summon a harshly negative statement when the regime began shooting people. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring is a decidedly ambiguous affair. It is toppling flawed U.S. allies, with no guarantee anything better will replace them. In Syria, it’s much simpler: A ruthless anti-American regime seeks its survival by firing live ammunition at funeral-goers.

For the realist, the unrest presented the opportunity to give an enemy of the United States a good, hard shove. For the idealist, it presented the opportunity to stand up for what’s right. The Obama administration initially did neither. Softheaded and hardhearted, the administration mumbled bromides about how it sure hoped Bashar al-Assad would begin reforming soon. Must America be so naïve about its enemies and so shamefaced about its values?

Under Obama, we’re making a practice of accumulating national embarrassments. The dollar is in decline. The state of the nation’s fiscal house is so shoddy that Standard & Poor’s warns that a downgrade in our AAA rating may be in the offing. Saudi Arabia is furious at us and is not playing ball on oil production. We have to depend on foreign creditors to keep operating our government, $14 trillion in the red. We endure lectures from Communist China about sound finance. 

For his sophisticated defenders, Obama is ushering in the long-overdue post-American world. For the rest of the public, for whom national pride still means something, it may feel like the 1970s again, when a self-impressed Democratic president last tried to get us to accept our supposedly inevitable diminishment. Jimmy Carter made his era synonymous with American weakness and decline.

Carter had the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt (he called it “an incomplete success”) to put an exclamation point on his fecklessness and America’s stumbles. Obama has Libya, a perfect expression of his ambiguous leadership. At this rate, he’ll give us much to be humble about.

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.


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