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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Eclipse of American Power

When I think of America's failed financial policies, its weak political leadership and its feeble foreign policy I am reminded of an interesting Thai phrase: "Maa du khreuang bin tok." Translated it means “A dog watching an airplane crash.” The phrase describes an event that is totally beyond the spectator's comprehension.

I believe we are witnessing an historic eclipse of American power in the world. It has been ongoing for at least three decades, but it has accelerated dramatically in just the past couple of years. One might argue that the decline of U.S. power began with the nation's ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam back in 1975--an event that I personally witnessed and experienced.

For all of our military might--and it is considerable--America often seems like some helpless leviathan. Now, with the country teetering on the brink of economic collapse, we are at the mercy of those who would love to see the U.S. crash and burn.

Think about it. Do you seriously believe that China cares a whit about the U.S. economy? Or than Muslim nations such as Pakistan feel any allegiance to Washington's political will?

No amount of American pressure or veiled threats could persuade the Chinese government to revalue its currency, nor induce the Pakistani government to cut links between its intelligence services and the Taliban.

The same goes for many other nations--all of which have eagerly accepted billions and billions of dollars in American aid, loans, and other economic entitlements. Do these nations need to be forever grateful for American (read U.S. taxpayer) largess? No, but given the kind of assistance they have received it is less than gracious for them to thumb their noses at Washington.

The sarcastic words of Prince Schwarzenberg of Austria come to mind. After the Russians had helped Austria suppress the Hungarian uprising in 1849 he said: “They will be astonished by our ingratitude.”

But wait. Why not thumb their noses at Washington? After all, what can the mice that are currently in charge of the American machinery of government do?

We are becoming a nation of political wimps who are guided more by political correctness than correct political foreign policy. The idea that we can be everybody's friend is a joke in a world where alliances are only important when they serve a nation's economic and political self-interest. Does anybody really think that the imams and sheiks of the Middle East have any real affection for America? The same goes for nations like China, India and our closest neighbors--Canada and Mexico.

From one side of the world to the other, countries are doing what they think best for themselves, rather than what the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon think they should do.

I have traveled and worked in some 65 countries during my career as a foreign correspondent and I can tell you that many of our so-called "friends" around the world would just as soon see us fail as succeed. Some would like to see the U.S. on its knees--the once all-powerful giant humbled by a world of jealous Davids.

Americans in general and our leaders in Washington in particular are seen as arrogant, uninformed, greedy bullies who deserve a comeuppance. And now we are getting it.

In his book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” Aaron David Mille tells of his years as a State Department official engaged in what is forlornly called the peace process. In his book he writes that in the Middle East today the United States finds itself “trapped in a region which it cannot fix and it cannot abandon,” where America is “not liked, not feared, and not respected.”

Meanwhile, America's largely uninformed populace continues blithely on, concerned more about who becomes the next American Idol or what overpaid egomaniac wins the Oscar, than how their lives are inextricably tied to nations like China that are propping up our ever- deteriorating economy.

These same nations are also witnessing the deterioration of America's once-envied culture and values. Is it any wonder that Muslims the world over despise a nation that has become narcissistic and hedonistic while growing more and more obsessed with sex, fame, wealth what passes these days as music.

Once, while traveling in Pakistan I was asked by a Muslim cleric why America allows women to be degraded, why it no longer esteems marriage and family and why it lavishes praise and wealth on entertainers, athletes and others who contribute little or nothing to society while showing nominal appreciation for teachers who are charged with providing an education for the nation's young.

I replied that I thought that characterization was a bit harsh. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the cleric didn't have a point.

We seem to value the wrong things in America. Ask any teenager to identify 10 of the nation's top rap artists or pop singers and they will do it in a flash. Ask them to identify 10 world leaders and they will stop at one or two--if that many. Some don't even know who their vice president is and perhaps 1 in 1000 will know the names of one of the two senators representing their state in Congress.

But it is not just American teenagers who would fail that test. Foreign policy is a non-starter for most Americans, who appear to be more parochial and inward-looking than ever before. This at a time when the global real-politick is as critical to understand as it has ever been.

And who is at fault? The media? Yes, most certainly. But not entirely. True, today's media is more focused on knee-jerk reporting of events such as what just happened in Egypt than being in a position to explain them with depth and intelligence. It is expensive to cover the world and in an era when traditional media are retrenching financially gone are the days when the Chicago Tribune, my old newspaper, will have 15-20 reporters living around the world. Instead, as with many news organizations, they will parachute journalists in for a few hours or days and it's on to the next crisis.

Much of the fault lies in Washington where it behooves the nabobs to keep global politics arcane and nearly incomprehensible to the great unwashed.

At the outset of World War II a senator was asked how the public should be informed of the progress of the war.

"We shouldn't provide any information at all except to say who won when the war is over," he said.

I suspect too many in our State Department and Department of Defense feel the same way, not to mention the White House and Congress.

Strong leadership is needed as the U.S. deals with a strange new world--one where Washington is finding it harder than ever to impose its will on anyone anywhere and where the eclipse of American power is manifest.

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. Heaven knows that when we have tried to impose our will on other nations the results have been mixed.

However, without a strong president in 2012 I fear that all of us will be helplessly and incomprehensively watching the political, economic and moral collapse of a once great country.
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