The Wall Street Journal

  • September 12, 2012

The New World Disorder

As the U.S. retreats, bad actors begin to fill the vacuum.

  • By their nature, foreign policy problems often have a long fuse. The successes of one Administration (Truman, Reagan) sometimes don’t pay off for years (Bush 41), while dangers can simmer until they suddenly explode (al Qaeda). The Obama Presidency has been an era of slowly building tension and disorder that seems likely to flare into larger troubles and perhaps even military conflict no matter who wins in November.

This is the bigger picture behind this week’s public fight between the U.S. and Israel, as well as the anti-American violence in Cairo and Benghazi. In the Persian Gulf, across the Arab Spring and into the Western Pacific, the U.S. is perceived as a declining power. As that perception spreads, the world’s bad actors are asserting themselves to fill the vacuum, and American interests and assets will increasingly become targets unless the trend is reversed.

The Administration can’t be blamed for the 9/11 anniversary attack in Benghazi, which was an act of terrorism by anti-American Islamists that wasn’t stopped by a weak new government. Chris Stevens, the first U.S. Ambassador killed abroad in 33 years, was one of America’s most capable diplomats who was deeply engaged in the post-Gadhafi transition. Libya’s government has condemned the attack, and one test of its desire for close U.S. ties will be whether it punishes the perpetrators.  

Though less violent, the mob that was able to scale the U.S. Embassy wall in Cairo is in other ways more troubling. Egypt and the U.S. have worked closely since Anwar Sadat, and Cairo is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid. Only last week the U.S. announced it will forgive about $1 billion in Egyptian debt. Yet the new Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi has failed to stop an assault on the Cairo Embassy, and it hadn’t condemned the latest attack by late Wednesday.

Almost as disconcerting was President Obama’s failure to mention the Cairo assault in his Rose Garden remarks on Wednesday morning. He condemned the Libyan attacks, praised the fallen U.S. diplomats, and pledged that “justice will be done.” But he didn’t offer any larger warning that such attacks will have consequences if they continue elsewhere around the world.

This is no idle worry. The 1979 seizure of U.S. diplomats in Tehran was followed that year by attacks on American Embassies in Tripoli and Islamabad. The U.S. Ambassador to Kabul was also killed. It isn’t enough for a President to say, as Mr. Obama did Wednesday, that he will work with other countries to secure the safety of U.S. diplomats. These governments have to know they will be held accountable if they don’t do so.

The larger concern is that these attacks fit a pattern of declining respect for U.S. power and influence. The Obama Administration has been saying for four years that the U.S. needs to defer to the U.N. and other nations, and the world has taken notice and is more willing to ignore U.S. desires and interests.

Across the Arab Spring, the U.S. has done little to shape events and is increasingly irrelevant. The U.S. angered Saudi Arabia by calling for the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and now has little sway in Bahrain. Mr. Obama has washed his hands of Syria, allowing Russia and Iran to keep their proxy in power and stir up trouble for Turkey and Lebanon. The Chinese have brazenly occupied disputed territories in the South China Sea, hinting at war if the U.S. intercedes on behalf of its Asian allies.

The U.S. withdrew in toto from Iraq, and now its Prime Minister ignores Vice President Joe Biden’s request to stop Iranian arms flights to Damascus. Even America’s dependent in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, is refusing to honor his commitments on holding Taliban detainees. Perhaps he has heard Mr. Obama describe Afghanistan in his re-election campaign as if the U.S. is already halfway out the door.


Zuma PressU.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the media as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stands by.

Most of all, Iran continues its march toward a nuclear weapon despite the President’s vow that it is “unacceptable.” The U.S. says it has isolated Iran, but only last month the U.N. Secretary-General defied a U.S. plea and attended a non-aligned summit in Tehran. The Administration has issued wholesale exemptions to Congressional sanctions, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on the weekend that the U.S. is “not setting deadlines” for Iran as it sprints to a bomb.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has engaged in repeated public arguments with Israel, supposedly its best ally in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, recently declared that he doesn’t want to be “complicit” in any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. The White House failed to contradict him. A nation that appears so reluctant to stand by its friends won’t be respected or feared by its enemies.


President Obama has had successes against terrorism, notably Osama bin Laden and a stepped-up pace of drone strikes. But both the hunt for al Qaeda and the drone program were part of the larger antiterror policy architecture established by his predecessor. He campaigned against much of that policy only to adopt it while in office.

Mr. Obama also came to office saying, and apparently believing, that a more deferential America would be better respected around the world. He will finish his term having disproved his own argument. The real lesson of the last four years—a lesson as much for Republican isolationists as for Democrats who want to lead from behind—is the ancient one that weakness is provocative.



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