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Posted at 3:48 PM ET, 03/10/2011

The shrinking superpower

By Jennifer Rubin

The Post's Scott Wilson provides this analysis of Obama's handling -- or non-handling -- of the Libyan revolution:

President Obama is content to let other nations publicly lead the search for solutions to the Libyan conflict, his advisers say, a stance that reflects the more humble tone he has sought to bring to U.S. foreign policy but one that also opens him to criticism that he is a weak leader . . . .

Although Obama sees advantages in keeping Washington in the background, especially in a region where the United States is held in such low regard, he has exposed himself to Republican charges that he is absent at a time of crisis. Conservatives say his one-of-the-team approach could also signal a decline in American fortitude after nearly a decade of war.

Well, if we are in such low regard, hasn't Obama failed in his "Muslim outreach"? Maybe the problem wasn't simply George W. Bush.

However, Scott's underlying analysis is a reminder that Obama, contrary to many conservatives' criticism, may not be paralyzed. Rather, he is intentionally downsizing America's superpower status. The Obama team has rationalized it this way:

"This is the Obama conception of the U.S. role in the world -- to work through multilateral organizations and bilateral relationships to make sure that the steps we are taking are amplified," said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "Maybe this is a different conception of U.S. leadership. But we believe leadership should galvanize an international response, not rely on a unilateral U.S. response."

But international bodies are slow and often unwilling to act. We don't share a worldview with Russia and China. By deferring to other nations and refusing to lead, Obama is in effect giving recalcitrant allies and aggressive competitors a veto. Russia doesn't want a no fly-zone? Oh, well, guess that's off the table.

Very bad things happen when America stands on the sidelines, as Scott reminds us:

Bill Clinton was criticized for standing by during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and waiting for years to use force in the Balkans. He finally did so in Kosovo without a U.N. Security Council resolution, a case that is being examined by European countries and the Obama administration as they decide how to proceed in Libya.

We have gotten to the point where conservatives and liberals are united in their wariness of Obama's lack of initiative. Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, is no neocon. But he sounds much like Elliott Abrams on this point:

"Having called on Gaddafi to leave, I think it would be hard for the administration to back away from the crisis if that goal remains unmet," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who said doing so would risk sending a message to other autocrats that they can use violence to maintain power. . . .

Abrams said: "I think they are being too timid here. And they are running the risk that there will be a bloodbath tomorrow and, by then, it will be too late for them to help the opposition."

When we get to the point where Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is to the right of the administration (advocating a no-fly zone) you know how extreme the administration's preference for American invisibility has become.

The administration's response to its bipartisan critics? "It's not as if we're not on the side of change," Scott quoted an administration official as saying. Not exactly a stirring message, is it?

What makes this all the more appalling is that we have had the 9/11 experience. Doing nothing when provoked and playing defense gave us 3,000 dead Americans. Unless we are on offense, our allies will be inclined to do very little and our enemies will run rampant. Come to think of it, that's pretty much what is going on now.

By Jennifer Rubin  | March 10, 2011; 3:48 PM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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We may not be the most powerful or influential nation any longer, but our voice is still heard -- like Uruguay or Azerbaijan or the NYT editorial board. When we say Gaddafi must go, that means it would be nice.

Posted by: eoniii | March 10, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse

While the international community is justifiably concerned with the violence in Libya, it has turned a blind eye to the deteriorating security and political situation in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia, among other Arab nations.
These post revolution and pre revolution countries are slipping into real chaos, slowly becoming increasingly unstable, especially Egypt, where ethnic rioting is now common, ie, Moslems killing Christian Copts, with murder, kidnapping, and violent armed robbery escalating out of control. The Yemeni and Saudi governments are using live fire and police violence on anti government demonstrators regularly.
Certainly Libya's violence is and should dominate international political scene, but the fact that the turmoil and violence in the other supposedly "liberated" Arab nations is now consuming those nations is a harbinger of far more worse times to come.
And where is President Obama?
Playing basketball perhaps?

Posted by: kenhe | March 10, 2011 4:35 PM | Report abuse

It's a very admirable thing, this WaPo effort to let the retarded play at "opinion writer".

Is Rubin really such a dolt that she expects Obama, or ANY American president, little more than halfway through ONE term, to work miracles in our relations with the Islamic world? I'm not enthusiastic about Obama at all, but this Rubin nitwit seems to think that the man should be able to issue a decree, and **poof!** problem solved!

Of course, in reality she doesn't **want** problems solved. Rubin's not real bright, but she's at least got enough animal cunning to keep quiet about her **real** agenda.

Posted by: SGlover910 | March 10, 2011 4:45 PM | Report abuse

What makes this all the more appalling is that we have had the 9/11 experience. Doing nothing when provoked and playing defense gave us 3,000 dead Americans. Unless we are on offense, our allies will be inclined to do very little and our enemies will run rampant. Come to think of it, that's pretty much what is going on now.
Wow. So either we intervene militarily in Libya or we risk another 9/11.

You know, I can respect the moral argument to intervene in Libya to prevent a bloodbath, and I think it has real merit. That being said, Jennifer is now just employing scare tactics to get the result she wants, and that's simply pathetic.

Posted by: mustangs79 | March 10, 2011 5:18 PM | Report abuse

Jennifer, if it weren't for Mr. Bush's tragic misplays throughout the Middle East, we would have more options.

President Obama is right to lay back for now.

Posted by: danw1 | March 10, 2011 5:36 PM | Report abuse

Why we once were a superpower:

We had the factories, foundries, shipyards, tank plants, skilled workers, and economic heft to be able to gear up for a two ocean global war and never reach the point where the war effort was bigger than the rest of the U.S. economy.

We were able to go from a badly neglected, abused, and equipped military being further cut, up the point that the Republican party tried to do away with the U.S. Army completely, in 1940, To vast armadas of ships, heavy on attack carriers, an Army of nearly 100 divisions with all the trimmings, and an Air Force of immense size because we had or built the bases needed to train the men we drafted and built into that military. And, while the draft was necessarily part of that buildup there was a great willingness on the part of the middle class especially to join that military for the duration of the fight. It was our war, (except when certain conservatives kept wanting to call it Roosevelt's war) and we were in it to win.

Why we aren't a Superpower any more:

Our shipyards are closed, sent overseas for commercial shipping and abandoned for Military shipbuilding and maintenance. Our foundries and factories are overseas because that way their owners make more money and don't worry themselves about the environment, or worker's rights, or other irrelevant expenses. Our specialized equipment needed to build tanks and armored vehicles was sold off to China after the last production runs of Abrams Tanks were canceled at the General Dynamics plant at Lima.

We have just a couple shipyards active capable of dry docking an attack carrier for normal maintenance and were looking at closing one of those several years ago. We went from some twenty divisions in the mid seventies to less than ten now, and we gave up almost all of our Corps and Army structures in the late seventies and through the eighties. WE called it a peace dividend, but the dividend went to the Friends of Ronnie and George when we closed essential bases like Presidio of San Francisco, Fitzsimmons Hospital, and Valley Forge Hospital, and Fort Sheridan, because the land they sat on was valuable, and we didn't at that time have a large number of injured soldiers needing their essential services.

We did all this, because the industry could make more money off shored, and the Military cost lots of money and that meant either deficits and debt, or taxes, and who needs a military if republicans have to pay taxes to pay for it?

We spent every year since Viet nam cutting our military and its bases beyond the point of radical amputation, and did it entirely because everything had a cost, and republicans didn't want to pay that cost.

Now we can't really even thing of one more no fly zone because we haven't that Attack carriers we would need to enforce it.

And NONE of ANY of this is Obama's doing because we had already done ALL of it by 2008. And the vast majority of it was done under Republican Presidents.

Posted by: ceflynline | March 10, 2011 5:38 PM | Report abuse

If Speaker Boehner can pull himself off the golf course, maybe he can explain to Ms. Rubin that one of the consequences of being "broke," as he put it, is that we don't have money for vanity military excursions, like we did under the last President.

Posted by: oldabandonedbeachhouse | March 10, 2011 5:49 PM | Report abuse

You can't be a superpower when you are broke, in debt to your major challenger, China. At the most, you can be a paper-superpower which is not a superpower. And for this state of our nation, we have to thank both political parties with the assistance of most of the public, because they have refused to defend the economic health of our country. So let's stop the silly talk that we can afford any war at any place at any cost. It's baloney.

Posted by: StewartNusbaumer | March 10, 2011 7:15 PM | Report abuse

No fly zones aren't a "right" or "left" thing. We've applied them during liberal and conservative presidential governments. The most public face currently against a no fly zone in Libya is Gates, hardly a leftie.

Our military is completely tangled up in Iraq and Afghanistan, in no small measure because of the idiotic invasion of Iraq.

Posted by: claritygraph | March 10, 2011 7:33 PM | Report abuse

The president announced the other day that Gaddafi must go, three words that encouraged the opposition, steeled their resolve. It put bad guys worldwide on notice, and they’ve been watching for the follow-up ever since.

Today NID Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Gaddafi will over the long term prevail.

Clapper was not wrong to say that, although he could have, er, phrased his conclusion quite differently. I happen to think he should be fired for a host of other reasons, but telling the unvarnished truth is not one of them.

Some of you might not like this, I know I don’t, but Gaddafi and the bad guys worldwide are now emboldened for they conclude that Obama is words, not actions. Gaddafi seems to have gotten his forces organized and will press ahead with renewed vigor, a lot more folks will die.

The opposition has got to be disheartened now that they realize that their only hope is, gulp, France. The opposition’s firepower has probably been French surplus military weapons smuggled in from Algeria, a good value because they’ve never been fired and only dropped once. Why continue the fight with the US committed to speechifying and Gaddafi getting more aggressive? The Iranian opposition will probably draw back again, while the Saudi and Bahraini opposition may see an opportunity with a passive US.

What Obama now needs to do is decide to either work toward removing Gaddafi or to say nothing and have another party, with or without Motown. The press conference tomorrow (Friday) will be interesting.

FWIW, it does seem that we could do great damage at little risk with warships and planes in the Mediterranean and only infrequent incursions over Libyan territory. Most of the action is the areas on the coast is within easy range of our stand-off weapons. While I do like the idea of A-10s letting loose with depleted uranium shells on Gaddafi’s tanks, there’s unfortunately no place to put the durn thangs nearby, so we’d have to use other weapons. But this point is moot unless The One decides to do something.

Posted by: SCMike1 | March 10, 2011 8:49 PM | Report abuse

SCMike1 :

A cople questions: How do you prevent the real problem, Helicopter Gunships coming in low from the South? Your infrequent flights are easily dodged.

how are you going to pay for those off shore warships, WHICH by the way, are out gunned and over calibered by a single Libyan battery of 155s.

Khaddafi's guns fire bigger shells longer distances than any gun still in use in the Navy. He had Exocets and hasn't yet used them. We have no more armored warships to stand against an Exocet, which packs a good deal more punch, and is much more likely to get through than a Zero with a 500 lb bomb flown by a dedicated Kamikaze. Any U.S. warship within anything not cruise missile class missile range is well within Libyan Gun and missile range.

How do you intend to pay for the cruise missiles?

When a soviet built SAM 7 takes down a U.S. warplane, how do you go get the pilot?

Its nice to complain that Obama isn't doing anything, its much more difficult to actually propose a plausible response.

John Kerry has an op ed in today. Insufficient, but with one small trace of reality. The Arab League and the African Union must get involved. With Tunisian and Egyptian Bases, and Arabs flying Arab air craft to do the interdiction we might accomplish something.

My opinion is that, since we don't have the carriers and don't really have the air craft needed to do the job, we ought to stay out.

Since the job probably adds $50 billion a year to our war fighting costs, and the Republicans will never agree to taxes to pay for it, we can't afford tpo even think about it.

And since the republicans will have better things to do than to go fight another war in Arabia, and therefor expect the poor and the democrats to fight it, we haven't the manpower.

When lots of well known republicans head for the recruiting stations, get back to me, but I don't want my son, or my daughter, fighting another war started by such brave young fellows as Newt and Cheney and Wolfowitcz and the rest of the chickenhawks.

Posted by: ceflynline | March 10, 2011 9:09 PM | Report abuse

Sort of like the guy (Tom Wilson) in Back to the Future : why don't you make like a tree and get out of here?!

Personally, rather be like Marty than what's-his-name, wouldn't you?

Posted by: aardunza | March 10, 2011 9:40 PM | Report abuse

Biff. I knew that!

Posted by: aardunza | March 10, 2011 9:52 PM | Report abuse

No we can't, and here's why. That's leadership!

Posted by: aardunza | March 10, 2011 10:02 PM | Report abuse

Jennifer infers that unless we intervene in Libya we are inviting another 9/11. Classic neocon thinking. Dumb.

9/11 happened only because we intervened in Muslim countries, the U.S. or our spoiled brat stepchild Israel, to exploit their land and resources.

Jennifer should consider that should the U.S. get bogged down in another war and occupation in Libya it will make it more difficult to attack and occupy Iran when neocons, AIPAC and their congressional lackeys finally beat down Obama's resistance. I can hear minds changing now.

Posted by: Lazarus40 | March 10, 2011 11:33 PM | Report abuse

Good argument Lazarus,

And what are the chances that Jennifer will touch on Israel's involvement with supplying the armed mercenaries that Gadaffi is hiring?

Posted by: Shingo1 | March 10, 2011 11:44 PM | Report abuse

President Obama is correct to walk softly and carry a big stick. He may find it useful to take a few quick swings to give Gaddafi a little payback for his long list of abusive ways.

Posted by: fadeddreams | March 11, 2011 12:06 AM | Report abuse

C-span is broadcasting today's "Extent of Radicalization" among American Muslims hearing at the moment.

Posted by: Mannie_Davis | March 11, 2011 12:28 AM | Report abuse

Wow. So either we intervene militarily in Libya or we risk another 9/11.

It's coming anyway. I think it was the Muslim Brotherhood which declared war on us back in September?

Posted by: gopthestupidparty | March 11, 2011 1:35 AM | Report abuse

President Obama is playing correct. From Cairo to Tripoli to Wisconsin his position is to stay largely out of the way, while the people free themselves by confronting their tormentors.
He knows big Government is not the answer. Rather he is letting the free market of ideas take its course. Good for him and the US.
So far Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have not cost a single America life. Mr. Obama has shown the world how change is done right.

His election led the way . He won the Noble peace prize for setting this global example. Now he may get another.

Posted by: EP33 | March 11, 2011 6:15 AM | Report abuse

Maybe this is the time to vote 'present' and to stop using the word 'unacceptable'. Let them sort out their own mess. We misuse our military in nation building instead of war-fighting. And what kind of nations did we build? "Islamic Republics" with sharia law. Whoopee.

Posted by: ilvuszq | March 11, 2011 8:23 AM | Report abuse

"Jennifer infers that unless we intervene in Libya we are inviting another 9/11. Classic neocon thinking. Dumb."

True. Dumb, un-conservative and un-American.

Here's how you know how bad off neocons are. Let's say China or Russia took the lead, helped the rebels and ousted the current Libyan regime, the neocons would bemoan that we did not do the deed. It wouldn't be about how Libya is free from Gaddafi, it would be about us.

Neocons are always worried how others view them, and if they are viewed as weak. They can't stand to know they're strong but no flaunt it, so they have to always prove it.

You know the shlameel/shlamazel shtick? Well neocons were the ones in school receiving wedgies, conservatives were the ones giving them the wedgies. They're spending the rest of their lives making us pay for their childhood trauma, with our money and the lives of our children of course.

Posted by: mfray | March 11, 2011 12:40 PM | Report abuse

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