Is US losing global influence?

A mounting set of foreign policy challenges is raising hackles among conservatives, who argue that the White House is squandering American influence around the globe. 

In the Middle East, longtime U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia have been rattled by the administration’s nuclear talks with Iran, which led to an interim agreement in November. Under its terms, some sanctions were lifted on the longtime U.S. enemy.

ADVERTISEMENT
In the Pacific, China has flexed its muscle, unilaterally setting up an air defense zone over a set of islands it says are its territory. That led to a fly-over by U.S. jets but a later recommendation from the State Department that American commercial airlines should accede to Beijing’s request for advance notice of flights into the area. 

More recently, U.S. and Chinese war ships nearly collided in the South China Sea.

Some believe Moscow’s influence on the global stage has also increased over the last year, as Russian President Vladimir Putin challenged President Obama by giving temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Putin also emerged as a winner during the Syria crisis, when the Russian engineered a last-second diplomatic move. The diplomacy allowed Obama to save face after calling for a congressional vote — which seemed doomed to failure — to authorize military action in Syria.

The episodes have given strength to critics of Obama like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the man he bested in 2008’s presidential election.

“The world sees the United States as weakening, whether it be in the Middle East or the Pacific,” McCain told The Hill.

He said China’s recent actions are a reflection of wider geo-political perceptions of the Obama administration.

“Countries like China will push because they think they can get away with it,” he said.

Prince Saudi al-Faisal, a former head of intelligence in Saudi Arabia, told a conference in Monaco on Sunday that several “red lines” put forward by Obama on Syria “became pinkish as time went on, and eventually ended up completely white.”

Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, argues the administration’s handling of that crisis caused the challenges it faces to multiply and strengthen.

“It is much easier to confront problems when they are small,” she said. “But here there is a feckless leadership that is reluctant to use American power for good.”

The White House and its supporters argue this is a misreading of reality. They suggest that even if the sequence of events in Syria was not pretty, it placed the goal of denuding Assad of his chemical weapons within reach and did so without the risks inherent in military action.

Others contend, however, that Assad’s ability to maintain his grip on power amounts to a sizable setback for the United States.

“I understand the logic of saying, ‘We are not going to get heavily involved in yet another Middle East mess,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But I think they’ve overcompensated. Assad is still in power and, if anything, he is in a better position than he was a year ago. It’s not working, and we cannot tolerate [a situation like] Somalia on the borders of Jordan and Israel and Lebanon.”

Still, the administration’s supporters say it is incorrect to say that U.S. influence around the globe is fading under Obama, pointing to the recent nuclear deal with Iran as an example.

The accord, struck last month, limits the amount of uranium Iran is allowed to produce and halts the installation of new centrifuges. 

In return, Tehran will get access to about $7 billion of its own funds that had been frozen in international accounts.

“I think it was the best deal we could have gotten,” said the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Tony Cordesman, who once served as a national security assistant to McCain.

“It is certainly not the perfect deal but considering we are talking about a program that has been developing since [Ayatollah] Khomeini restored it in 1984, and considering we had made almost no positive progress up to now, it is at least a starting point.”

“I haven’t heard one decent argument against what the administration is trying to do,” said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

With China, however, Gelb argued that the United States had yielded too much.

“Basically, I think the Chinese strategy for some time has been to stake out claims, and hold onto those claims until everyone, including the United States, throws up their hands and accepts its position. At some point we have to demonstrate to the Chinese that this approach doesn’t work.”

China’s rise now looks inexorable while the United States grapples with how to maintain its influence after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while it still faces economic weakness at home. 

With enemies always looking for vulnerabilities to exploit, concern among the foreign policy community is becoming acute.

“The fact is that both in Asia and in the Middle East, there are more and more questions about the US role,” said Cordesman. “Some of them come from the legacy of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts. Some of them come from the perception, fair or unfair, that this president tends to be indecisive and fail to act. Some of them are not the fault of the United States at all.”

“But,” he continued, “this has not been an administrational that communicates leadership; it communicates that it has deeply intellectual concerns. That is not an approach that achieves many particularly useful results. You don’t contemplate; you lead.”