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Richard Cohen
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Sunday 19 February 2012
“But a limited America still has unlimited possibilities and solemn responsibilities. If not America, then who? Then nobody.”

Obama in Denial About American Influence

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The usually reliable sources tell us that President Obama picked up a recent edition of the highly reliable New Republic and came away impressed. He read a lengthy essay by Robert Kagan amorphously titled “Not Fade Away,” but unambiguously subtitled “The Myth of American Decline” — the latter saying it all. The president then expropriated (eminent domain?) the essay’s theme for part of his State of the Union message, saying, “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Among those who have done so is Barack Obama himself.

The president’s telling has been expressed sometimes in words, but more so in actions. He has conducted himself and his foreign policy as if the United States has indeed slipped in power, prestige and, more important, commitment. The same Obama who cited — again, in the State of the Union — Madeleine Albright’s famous formulation that America is the “indispensable nation,” dispensed with American power and prestige in failing to take the lead in confronting Moammar Gaddafi in Libya and instead was goaded into the fray by Britain and France. This was called “leading from behind,” which is indistinguishable from panting to keep up.

In his essay, an excerpt from his new book, Kagan warns the reader not to get lost in the moment. The rise and fall of nations is a long-term affair, and the setbacks of a day or even a year may look calamitous but, as serene history knows, may well amount to nothing. Kagan recalls the hand-wringers who knew that the Watergate scandal was America’s domestic Waterloo and the defeat in Vietnam an international one. Two Waterloos in a single decade ought to spell kaput, but here we proudly remain. I take his point.

Still, since the State of the Union, a cascade of rebuffs has descended on the White House. That Xanadu of an embassy complex intended for Baghdad has been scaled back because the Iraqis — the people we liberated, remember? — will not tolerate so many Americans. The Egyptians are planning to prosecute 19 Americans on patently political charges, apparently indifferent to the threatened loss of $1.3 billion annually in aid or, more likely yet, thinking Obama never administers pain. They’re on to something there.

Russia will not cooperate on Iran. Neither will China. The two even vetoed a U.N. resolution regarding Syria. India will continue to buy Iranian oil, and the Iranians themselves have learned that they need only promise to behave and Washington will shimmer in relief. The Palestinians vow to unite in such a way as to dismiss U.S. threats to cut off financial aid, and the Israelis, not to be out-vowed, threaten to bomb Iranian nuclear installations, America and its concerns (and assurances) notwithstanding.

As Kagan himself notes, the question of whether America is in decline has been debated for years — or, if you ask me, ever since it started to go into decline. Whatever the case, the United States remains plenty powerful and plenty rich and can be the indispensable nation that Albright envisioned and Kagan champions — able, as it did, to settle matters in Bosnia, Kosovo and, after a kick in the pants, Libya. But to do that, it needs both vision and menace. Nations should not be able to dismiss America or its president — as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu did on settlements and Russia’s Vladimir Putin does on almost anything. Neither drones nor SEALs are a policy. They are tactical instrumentalities, not strategic visions.

The Middle East is going to pieces. The Arab Spring consumes its own metaphors — fall, winter, etc. Night is more like it. The soccer melee in Egypt that claimed nearly 80 lives in hand-to-hand combat suggests something about that society that does not bring to mind maypoles and penny whistles. Syria is coming apart, Jordan could be next, and for sheer orneriness, we can turn to Pakistan — friend one day, foe the next. America has limited influence over some of this. And roiling democracies, unconcerned with bottom lines and balance of power, limit it further. But a limited America still has unlimited possibilities and solemn responsibilities. If not America, then who? Then nobody.

To a man (almost), the Republican presidential candidates talk of an America and an American role that no longer exist. In apparent response, the president talks of a role cut and pasted from a magazine and claims a policy, outlook and demeanor that haven’t been his. America may or may not be in decline, but until recently, Obama has certainly been in denial.

© , Washington Post Writers Group

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ABOUT Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen is a weekly columnist for The Post, writing on domestic and foreign politics. His column appears on Tuesdays.

Cohen joined The Post as a reporter in 1968 and covered everything from police, city hall, education, state government and national politics. As the paper's chief Maryland correspondent, he was one of two reporters who broke the story of the investigation of former Vice President Spiro Agnew. In 1976, he began writing a column for the paper's Metro section. His column became nationally syndicated in 1981 and has appeared on the op-ed page of The Post since 1984. Cohen is the author, with Jules Witcover of "A Heartbeat Away: The Investigation and Resignation of Spiro T. Agnew" (1974).

Cohen has received the Sigma Delta Chi and Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild Awards for his investigative reporting.

We are now a war-based

We are now a war-based society permanently looking for a new fight. Right now we are probably goingout everything covertly which is why it is such a mess like Aghanistan became before weven invaded to have an even bigger mess. We vetoed Security Council censure of Iraq for use of the poison gas he was later accused and convicted of... no one seem to care gas was also used on Iran or that we helpfully armed both sides. We may not know but the world at large might, like they might think we lied about another invasion of Iraq and did it to dominate the oil in the region. Some may be less willing to side with us at all as a consequence and we will get less cooperation. The world may be waiting for us to climb down from our hallucinatory mushroom cloud. Never mind the Albright and Rice belief in international shock therapy as a way to induce change along with loss of incredibles amounts of lives and damages and contrary to the international law we helped build in the first place. A law we may not find available when we most need it one day.

This from the man who cheered

This from the man who cheered us straight into Baghdad. Mr. Cohen you are as bankrupt a messenger regarding policy, values, and ethics as the lowest toady from the Bush - Cheney Mafia. Please pack your knives and go.

I don't really buy that

I don't really buy that President Obama believes America is what it once was because he made a speech to rally Americans. A speech is just that. It isn't about the blatant truth. If politicians did that, we all would be on Xanax. America IS a superpower. We can outsell most anyone when it comes to guns, ammo, weapons of mass destruction. That is a big business. We don't have the jobs we had, but we can thank free trade ideas that make globalization sound like a trip to Disneyland when it is a trip to making crude forms of iron in your back yard. If we all sat down and had an assignment to make a speech that would sell politically and to our nation as we are now, it would be a hard sell. The right, and some on the left are still talking about how the President should take ownership in this or that instead of attributing the ills of the country to Bush and the right. I think the amount of destruction that preceded Mr. Obama's inauguration would require several decades of a more left leaning President and congress to fix.

Even Obama's thieving Wall

Even Obama's thieving Wall Street "Savvy Businessmen" buddies are having a tougher time ripping off the world with total impunity, thanks to Occupy Wall Street.
(May Lloyd Blankfein be allowed to do "GOD's work" in a maximum security prison setting in various countries for the rest of his corrupt life.)

George Carlin told us that we are just circling the drain.
We seem to be headed down the sewer now as our slick-tongued snake oil salesman of a president peddles his bullsh#t.

Whose decline? "If the

Whose decline?

"If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains;
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still."
- Joe Hill

And any other damn thing we would want, if we weren't such herd animals being shepherded around by talking heads and scare tactics

Whose decline? "If the

Whose decline?

"If the workers take a notion,
They can stop all speeding trains;
Every ship upon the ocean
They can tie with mighty chains;
Every wheel in the creation,
Every mine and every mill,
Fleets and armies of the nation,
Will at their command stand still."
- Joe Hill

And any other damn thing we would want, if we weren't such herd animals being shepherded around by talking heads and scare tactics

Old Uncle Dave's picture

Anyone who thinks this

Anyone who thinks this country is not in decline hasn't been paying attention.

What is this guys point? He

What is this guys point? He stands in righteous indignation on every side of this nebulous argument. What's your point dude? You think your smarter than anyone else, got it. Most specifically Obama, got it. Blah blah blah blah..."America has limited influence over some of this." And??? So You wish it wasn't so complicated, I guess that's your point. America is or isn't in "decline" say you and you know how to nitpick, with hind sight and impunity, everything that the President does (since you don't do anything, in your life, that has profound significance in this world). OK, we have read your piece and are all a little dumber and a little less informed towards clarity on this non-issue, for having done so. Go get your pay check, you earned it!

Our GNP seems dependent on

Our GNP seems dependent on our need to sell arms/armament and technology to other countries. We 'give' contracts to foreign organizations for our railway, shipping and small aircraft production. Most electronics are produced overseas and perhaps packaged in the USA as are medical devices and drugs.

O "in denial"? Oh, please --

O "in denial"?

Oh, please -- he's happily in the middle of all the emissaries of Wall Street, high finance, and self-bonusing-corporate-CEO-dom as he could happily be. Why would any American choose to see the world except through the eyes of the corporate-privileged?

Please re-read Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." You'll see the wisdom of withdrawing into the company of one's fellow-rich. This outside reality you mention? -- or outside realities? Please, good Americans from Poe on know the wisdom of back-slapping, accepting-favors, partying on!

In fact we are emphatically

In fact we are emphatically in decline, and have been since at least the war against Viet Nam. We fight too many wars --- now multi-trillion dollar undertakings --- in far away places that we should leave alone. And we have hundreds of expensive bases around the world. That alone might be enough to seal our fate. But we also have deindustrialized by embracing something misleadingly known as free trade. It's not a question of if but of when.

Sure. The USA has a powerful

Sure. The USA has a powerful influence. It's a big bad bully in this world and the USA kills thousands in its covert and overt wars. And, yes, the USA has created a lot of enemies and it will continue to do so as anyone becoming president will continue to act as a bully and will continue to kill.

All true, "Nebulastardust,"

All true, "Nebulastardust," though you've left out the charming kicker as to how, for doing this, our dear dude got Nobel Prize for Peace.

Military force, and the

Military force, and the threat of force alone, is not influence. The US has, of course, used military force (and foreign aid) freely in the aim of aiding American corporations, but corporations are now transnational and US economic influence is on the wane.

I'm not an American, Phil, so

I'm not an American, Phil, so maybe you could let me know how he got it. I thought it was for not being GW Bush, but also because the Nobel committee met and decided on the prize more on his campaign promises and inauguration than on anything he did differently from Bush.

Was that the same Nobel

Was that the same Nobel Committee that once absolutely farcically gave a Peace Prize to Yassar Arafat?

BTW, did anyone else ever notice that Arafat looked like an uglier Ringo Starr?

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