by Steven R. Hurst
October 05, 2013
Sense of Unease Growing Around the
as U.S. Government Looks Befuddled
An unmistakable sense of unease has been growing in capitals around the
world as the U.S. government from afar looks increasingly befuddled -
shirking from a
military confrontation in Syria, stymied at
home by a gridlocked Congress and in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt,
which could plunge the world's financial system into chaos.
While each of the factors may be unrelated to the direct exercise of U.S.
foreign policy, taken together they give some allies the sense that
Washington is not as firm as it used to be in its resolve and its financial
capacity, providing an opening for China or Russia to fill the void, an
Asian foreign minister told a group of journalists in New York this week.
Concerns will only deepen now that President
Obama canceled travel this weekend to the Asia Pacific
Economic Cooperation Forum in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei.
He pulled out of the gatherings to stay home to
deal with the government shutdown and looming fears that Congress will block
an increase in U.S. borrowing power, a move that could lead to a U.S.
The U.S. is still a pillar of defense for places in Asia like Taiwan and
South Korea, providing a vital security umbrella against China. It also
still has strong allies in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf
Arab states arrayed against al-Qaida and Iran.
But in interviews with academics, government leaders and diplomats, faith
that the U.S. will always be there is fraying more than a little.
"The paralysis of the American government,
where a rump in Congress is holding the whole place to ransom, doesn't
really jibe with the notion of the United States as a global leader,"
said Michael McKinley, an expert on global relations at the Australian
The political turbulence in Washington and
potential economic bombshells still to come over the U.S. government
shutdown and a possible debt default this month have sent shivers through
The head of the European Central Bank, Mario
Draghi, worried about the continent's rebound from the 2008 economic
"We view this recovery as weak, as fragile,
as uneven," Draghi said at a news conference.
Germany's influential newspaper Sueddeutsche
Zeitung bemoaned the U.S. political chaos.
"At the moment, Washington is fighting over
the budget and nobody knows if the country will still be solvent in
three weeks. What is clear, though, is that America is already
politically bankrupt," it said.
Obama finds himself at,
The nexus of a government in chaos at
home and a wave of foreign policy challenges
He has been battered by the upheaval
in the Middle East from the Arab
Spring revolts after managing to extricate the U.S. from its long,
brutal and largely failed attempt to establish democracy in Iraq
He is also drawing down U.S. forces from
a more than decade-long war in Afghanistan with no real victory in
He leads a country whose people have no
interest in taking any more military action abroad
As Europe worries about economics, Asian allies
watch in some confusion about what the U.S. is up to with its promise to
rebalance military forces and diplomacy in the face of an increasingly
Global concerns about U.S. policy came to a head with Obama's handling of
the civil war in Syria and the alleged use of chemical weapons by the
regime of President Bashar Assad.
But, in fact, the worries go far deeper.
"I think there are a lot of broader concerns
about the United States. They aren't triggered simply by Syria. The
reaction the United States had from the start to events in Egypt created
a great deal of concern among the Gulf and the Arab states," said
Anthony Cordesman, a military affairs specialist at the Center for
Kings and princes throughout the Persian Gulf
were deeply unsettled when Washington turned its back on Egypt's long-time
dictator and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 uprising in the largest
Now, Arab allies in the Gulf voice dismay over the rapid policy redirection
from Obama over Syria, where rebel factions have critical money and weapons
channels from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states.
It has stirred a rare public dispute with
Washington, whose differences with Gulf allies are often worked out behind
Last month, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud
al-Faisal warned that the renewed emphasis on diplomacy with Assad would
allow the Syrian president to "impose more killing." After saying Assad must
be removed from power and then threatening military strikes over the
regime's alleged chemical weapons attack, the U.S. is now working with
Russia and the U.N. to collect and destroy Damascus' chemical weapons
That assures Assad will remain in power for now
and perhaps the long term.
Danny Yatom, a former director of Israel's Mossad intelligence
service, said the U.S. handling of
Syrian crisis and its decision not to attack after declaring red
lines on chemical weapons has hurt Washington's credibility.
"I think in the eyes of the Syrians and the
Iranians, and the rivals of the United States, it was a signal of
weakness, and credibility was deteriorated," he said.
The Syrian rebels, who were promised U.S. arms,
say they feel deserted by the Americans, adding that they have lost faith
and respect for Obama.
The White House contends that its threat of a military strike against Assad
was what caused the regime to change course and agree to plan reached by
Moscow and Washington to hand its chemical weapons over to international
inspectors for destruction. That's a far better outcome than resorting to
military action, Obama administration officials insist.
Gulf rulers also have grown suddenly uneasy over the U.S. outreach to their
regional rival Iran.
Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said Gulf
states "must be in the picture" on any attempts by the U.S. and Iran to open
sustained dialogue or reach settlement over Tehran's nuclear program.
He was quoted Tuesday by the London-based Al
Hayat newspaper as saying Secretary of State John Kerry has promised
to consult with his Gulf "friends" on any significant
shifts over Iran - a message that suggested Gulf states are
worried about being left on the sidelines in potentially history-shaping
developments in their region.
In response to the new U.S. opening to Iran to deal with its suspected
nuclear weapons program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
told the U.N. General Assembly that his country remained ready to act alone
to prevent Tehran from building a bomb.
He indicated a willingness to allow some time
for further diplomacy but not much. And he excoriated new Iranian President
Hassan Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
Kerry defended the engagement effort, saying the U.S. would not be played
for "suckers" by Iran.
Tehran insists its nuclear program is for
peaceful energy production, while the U.S. and other countries suspect it is
aimed at achieving atomic weapons capability.
Michael McKinley, the Australian expert, said Syria and
the U.S. budget crisis have shaken
Australians' faith in their alliance with Washington.
"It means that those who rely on the
alliance as the cornerstone of all Australian foreign policy and
particularly security policy are less certain - it's created an element
of uncertainty in their calculations," he said.
Running against the tide of concern, leaders in
the Philippines are banking on its most important ally to protect it from
China's assertive claims in the South China Sea.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said
Manila still views the U.S. as a dependable ally despite the many challenges
it is facing.
"We should understand that all nations face
some kind of problems, but in terms of our relationship with the United
States, she continues to be there when we need her," Gazmin said.
"There's no change in our feelings," he said. "Our strategic
relationship with the U.S. continues to be healthy. They remain a
But as Anthony Cordesman said,
"The rhetoric of diplomacy is just wonderful
but it almost never describes the reality."
That reality worldwide, he said,
"is a real concern about where is the U.S.
going. There is a question of trust. And I think there is an increasing
feeling that the United States is pulling back, and its internal
politics are more isolationist so that they can't necessarily trust what
U.S. officials say, even if the officials mean it."
Steven R. Hurst, The Associated Press'
international political writer in Washington, has covered foreign affairs
for 35 years, including extended assignments in Russia and the Middle East.