It is hard to open a newspaper with out seeing the phrase “America’s Waning Influence” or “America’s Diminished Power”, both used in a November 2 NYT “White House Memo.” These stories all beg the question “diminished power to do what?” We should rather ask whether the power and influence were used successfully? In the presumable heyday of American superpowerdom, post collapse of the Soviet Union, we invaded Iraq. Is that an action we are somehow supposed to be regretful we can’t keep on doing? At a major US Institute of Peace conference on Israel-Palestinian peace, speaker after speaker noted that US influence in the region had plummeted. The two main reasons given were the war in Iraq and US responsibility for the financial collapse of 2008. Those were events that happened under the Administration of Bush 43.
The decisions made by the men around Bush 43 flowed from their own background in the US military and defense establishments. This was the world they knew. “Diplomacy was not their strong suit” as the chronicler of the Bush war cabinet, James Mann, details in his 2004 “Rise of the Vulcans.” Their only strategy post 9/11 was to doubledown on American military power; taking actions with the explicit purpose of making US purposes unchallengeable. But they were challenged. The Europeans didn’t go along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was no NATO, let alone UN support. There was active French opposition to the invasion. Remember patriotic Americans renaming French fries “Freedom Fries”?
Why, when Iraq wasn’t successful and we didn’t get our way, is it Obama’s presidency that is considered weak and diminished? Why isn’t it “Bush’s war” and “Bush’s financial collapse” that is blamed for the diminution of American power? The answer is that Cheney and the militarists made America weaker, but we have so absorbed the principle that American strength equals being able to coerce through military means that we have to define even a failed Administration operating under that principle as strong. The idea that a strong America means one that can force others to do what we want, paradoxically means such an Administration cannot be criticized as weak, as responsible for loss of American power and influence, even if in fact it was responsible for that loss of power. Success doesn’t matter. It’s whether you get success through coercion.
On the flip side of the coin, also paradoxically, the great foreign policy successes of the Obama Administration can’t be defined as strength. America’s Secretary of State in Libya used brilliant diplomacy, usually behind the scenes, coupled with multilateral and limited military action, but don’t call it success, even if the outcome benefited America, because we shared responsibility with others, using a minimum of coercive power. It would have been a success only if we proclaimed we did it under a strategic “vision” of demonstrating American dominance, bringing us back to another plummet of US influence for the next US Institute of Peace conference.
– Elizabeth Spiro Clark
November 7, 2011