U.S. Influence Hits New Lows
Obama’s trips to Europe and Saudi Arabia reveal the limits of American power.
President Barack Obama spoke with condescension last week at The Hague when he identified the Russian Federation as a “regional power that’s threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength but out of weakness.”
From Moscow’s point of view, Obama’s embassy to world capitals at the end of March demonstrated that the United States has also become a regional power, one that can no longer get its way in Europe and the Middle East.
In The Hague and in Brussels, Obama spoke of economic sanctions against Russia while definitely ruling out military force to resolve the Ukraine crisis. No European leader disagreed. It’s not just that severe sanctions would damage the fragile recovery underway in the EU. The Europeans have long since accepted that the U.S. cannot do more than talk of an Atlantic-based alliance. Moscow regards NATO as a shell of its 20th century presence and doesn’t worry much about military exercises or provocative NATO meetings chaired by the NATO and European Command leader, Gen. Phillip Breedlove, who had scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill canceled so he could consult with allies.
Rather, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has turned from speaking to Obama to routine and substantive conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is not surprising that the news of modest Russian troop deployments away from the Ukrainian border came from a telephone conversation between Putin and Merkel.
The two leaders speak in Russian, which Merkel learned in her youth in East Germany, despite the fact that Putin speaks German. The choice of Russian is meant to be significant, as Berlin believes the future of Europe rests with Moscow. The theme between the two leaders is the Russian trope, the Common Eurasian Home. British Prime Minister David Cameron is aware of the conversations and doesn’t dissent.
Merkel and Putin reportedly speak disdainfully of Poland in particular, because it is regarded as the instigator of the troubles in eastern Ukraine since the first of the year. Merkel and Putin are working to manage the present crisis in a way that gives Russia what it wants: a federalized Ukraine, with Russian as the official second language, which would keep the country in the Russian sphere. Recent turmoil in eastern Ukraine has advanced Moscow’s position that all regions of Ukraine should have an equal voice and that Kiev should have more limited authority.
In addition, Merkel and Putin speak of giving Germany what it wants: an uninterrupted working relationship with Russia for energy and investment opportunities across Eurasia. Moscow and Berlin, I am told, do not see a role for the U.S. in these Eurasian ambitions. The unhappy opinion of the Kremlin is that if Obama truly seeks a positive role in the crisis, then perhaps Obama can see to it that the interim government in Kiev restores access to Russian media and endorses the Russian second-language plan.
Saudi Arabia will go its own way with regard to the Syrian civil war and the surrogate war with Iran.
The Kremlin is confident that the Ukrainian crisis will find a solution without American hands. The chocolate billionaire Petro Poroshenko is leading in the run-up to the presidential vote. He supported the Kiev uprising, but he’s said to be a pragmatist whose factories and wealth are sited in Russian-dominated eastern Ukraine and whose best markets are in Russia. The only significant rival for the presidency is the troubled billionaire Yulia Tymoshenko, whose anti-Russian statements make her an unlikely problem solver but a useful example for the Moscow brief that Kiev is in the hands of the wrong people.
In any event, the darkest voices from the Kremlin believe that Ukraine will fragment gradually after the presidential vote into a two-part construction, similar to the Czech-Slovak separation.
Obama’s embassy to Saudi Arabia last week also illustrated that the U.S. no longer has determinative authority overseas. The White House reported that the meetings between Obama and Saudi King Abdullah were meant to offer reassurance on the Syrian civil war and the threat of Iran. Although the hospitality was precise, the conversations were at odds. The Saudis told Obama they want a Libyan-style U.S. intervention in Syria. Further, in the event that Iran counters the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they want the U.S. to remove the regime in Tehran. What the Saudis most favor — and they’re not secretive about saying so — is a shahlike regime in Tehran that is obedient and peaceful.
Obama is reported to have responded to the Saudi remarks by pointing to his hopes of an agreement with Tehran over the suspected nuclear weapon program.
The Saudis were displeased to see that Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice took valuable time from the meetings with Abdullah to speak to Putin in Moscow. The Saudis did not regard the conversation with Putin — about the breakaway Moldova region of Transdniestria — as pressing, and the lack of agreement in Paris between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the Ukraine crisis demonstrated the Saudi opinion.
The meetings ended in smiles because the Saudis are excellent hosts, in the tradition of their Bedouin roots.
The most important development happened before the president’s entourage arrived in Saudi Arabia: Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin was named heir apparent to the elderly Abdullah. Muqrin was educated in part in the United States, speaks excellent English, is media savvy and is unhappy with the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East. I am told Muqrin is deeply disappointed with Obama.
The opinion of Saudi Arabia watchers is that the kingdom will go its own way with regard to the Syrian civil war and the surrogate war with Iran. There are fresh reports of anti-tank missiles from Saudi and Qatar arsenals now in the hands of anti-Assad forces in Syria.
New allies for Muqrin are said to include Cairo, Jerusalem and Moscow. Of these three, the most challenging for Riyadh is how to work closely with the Israelis while maintaining public distance for the appearance of religious differences.
The summary, then, of the president’s long journey from continental Europe to the Persian Gulf and back to Washington is that U.S. influence and reach has declined dramatically these last years.
From Moscow’s point of view, the U.S. unwisely acted as a hyperpower for a few years at the close of the 20th century. This unearned hyperpower showed itself in the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe under presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq deployments by George W. Bush and Obama.
Serial overreach by all parties in Washington, in Moscow’s measure, led to disastrous entanglements that damaged the U.S. and NATO’s sense of proportion. The limitations of U.S. power are apparent in Ukraine and in Syria. The U.S. is once again a major power in a multipolar world of give-and-take sovereignty. The rising authority of Russia and the fresh independence of Saudi Arabia are evidence of U.S. retrenchment.
John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.
John Batchelor – Aljazeera America
April 12, 2014
Related link – http://tinyurl.com/qy3csrr