by Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
If any more proof were needed that the era of American dominance in today's international arena is mired in a process of accelerated decline, Forbes magazine's 2013 ranking of the world's most influential people is simply further affirmation. The only surprising part of the ranking was not that U.S. President Barack Obama was ousted from the top spot by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that the American president finished in second place ahead of considerably more impressive figures as far as their proven achievements are concerned (such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel) or the inspiring nature of their visions (Pope Francis, for example).
Indeed, after nearly five years since Obama entered the White House it is abundantly clear that the American superpower has traveled back in time to the late 1970s, to the time of former President Jimmy Carter. It is not merely that the Carter administration projected obvious weakness in confronting the diplomatic and strategic challenges it faced (including coming to terms with the imprisonment of 53 American diplomats inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran without a response), but that its foreign policy is rife with internal contradictions and lacks a minimum degree of consistency. Despite the potential offered by the current global and regional circumstances, Obama continues to offer up the same muddled policy outline as Carter, and continues treading down the path set forth by the peanut farmer from Georgia after landing in the Oval Office on January 20, 1977.
Thus, for example, in the same manner that for three whole years (until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979) Carter championed a foreign policy of appeasement vis-à-vis the Russians, the Obama administration has formulated its policies vis-à-vis "rogue states" (like Iran and Syria). It is a policy based on a litany of unequivocally liberal axioms, which at their core -- and which is entirely becoming of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- negate the military option as a legitimate element in the strategic tool box of the American superpower.
In 1980 it was Carter who, after endless hesitation, ordered a modest rescue operation to save the hostages in Tehran (which failed miserably). Recently, it was Obama who recoiled from even ordering a minimal missile strike directly targeting the Assad regime's military forces and installations. This, despite his firm promises to do so if Damascus were to cross the red line of using chemical weapons. It is true that the campaign in Afghanistan is not yet over, but the target date determined by the administration to end its involvement there is firm and valid. In the Libyan arena, meanwhile, where the U.S. has also been active, the Obama administration took pains to keep a low profile and was essentially dragged into action by its NATO partners, Great Britain and France.
The same things can be said for the administration's conduct in the Iranian sphere, where the over-enthusiasm being exhibited by "all of Obama's people" to reach a deal with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani is weakening their bargaining position even before negotiations reach their critical stage.
A similar picture of weakness, bordering on clumsiness, is discernible on the domestic front. After investing most of its energy and presidential resources in the crown jewel -- the health care reform act -- the White House is now struggling to actually implement it following its formal approval, resulting in continued organizational chaos that could jeopardize Obama's entire vision. This is comparable to the failed administrative work, lacking a minimal modicum of sensitivity, surrounding the Edward Snowden affair through all its twists and turns. In this regard as well, Obama exhibited weakness, detachment and aloofness, and avoided what the situation required of him by not delving into the National Security Agency's "black box."
Amid this backdrop, it is not surprising that Putin, who enjoys a wider range of maneuverability on the domestic front, passed Obama to take the top spot on the Forbes list. The days ahead will let us know if America's process of decline and its willing renunciation of its status as the world's No. 1 hegemony, while retreating into its own world, will also continue into 2014 and gain expression in Forbes' next ranking.
Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
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