Whether directly or tacitly, nations offer signals about their strength, willingness to act, weakness, and appeasement. At the moment the United States is in a state of “preemptive surrender,” a condition manifest by several recent events.
When Russia granted asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Putin defied and embarrassed the Obama administration. Lawmakers across the land scorned Moscow for this obvious slap in the face, but Putin knew intuitively that there were unlikely to be any real consequences. White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step…” But all that happened was a decision to withdraw from Obama’s one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The message is loud and clear to friends and foes alike: a nation, as well as a terrorist group, can get away with hostile actions against the United States. There is simply no price to pay for attacking the U.S. in these Obama years. While no one will say so directly, American security is now more fragile than at any point since Pearl Harbor. The U.S. still has some power and influence but as Putin’s decision and the Chinese unwillingness to prevent Snowden from fleeing Hong Kong suggest, the limits of power are apparent.
Moreover, frustration with Mr. Putin has been building on another front. Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including a transfer of advanced antiship missiles over U.S. objections, indicates Russian ambitions cannot be thwarted by U.S. power. Government officials contend that the U.S. can push Moscow only so far without jeopardizing “mutual” interests in other areas, i.e. the Iran nuclear program. But this claim merely demonstrates how far U.S. interests have been compromised.
Not only has the Snowden affair weakened U.S. anti-surveillance and anti-terror activity it has invited copycats to do the same. For detractors of American policy the door of disclosure is open and secrets are for sale with virtual impunity. In addition, the U.S. government has averted its gaze from the release of terrorists from jails at an alarming rate. Last month, al Qaeda freed 600 terrorists – including many on death sentences – from two prisons near Bagdad. Terrorists also pulled off a massive jailbreak in Benghazi that included 1200 inmates.
Yet even as tensions across the world are rising and China and Russia are daily challenging America’s national will, the U.S. military is conducting sweeping overhaul of its war plans and capability. Recent Pentagon proposals unveiled deep cuts in the size of the Army and Marine Corps and further cuts in naval forces already decimated by recent retrenchment. Pentagon officials maintain that these force reductions still provide adequate contingency plans for dealing with hypothetical conflicts around the world. But every officer knows that the revised plans mean “achieve the mission with fewer forces.”
Surely these new plans require technological innovations to compensate for force reductions. Where these innovations come from is anyone’s guess. Moreover, projecting power when and where it is needed becomes an exercise in priority building. The military can no longer do what it once did.
Here is yet another signal from the Obama administration. Mutual defense pacts that depend on an American military umbrella can no longer be relied on. President Obama has discussed a pivot to Asia, but it is a pivot without substance. Allies in the Pacific wonder whether the U.S. government has the will to act, and even if it does, no longer has the naval assets to project power. Is it any wonder that there are continual debates in the councils of Asian governments from Japan to India about the U.S. commitment to the region.
For enemies of the U.S., there isn’t the fear of apprehension and retaliation. Despite all the talk about Bin Laden, the terrorists responsible for the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi walk the streets without any concern. As they see it, the United States is a paper tiger, toothless and without the will to defend itself. Even if this is exaggerated, the perception is dangerous because it can become a reality that triggers terrorist activity wherever American interests are vulnerable.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
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