By Harlan Ullman
While Americans as individuals are generally liked around much of the world, America’s standing and credibility are not in such good odor. More than fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy put in train an explanation for this paradox. As the Cuban Missile Crisis was gathering in October 1962, JFK needed the support of America’s allies.
The unanswerable question is what would the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have done if that crisis went hot? Would the alliance have invoked Article 5 of the founding Washington Treaty, meaning that an attack against one was an attack against all (something NATO would ultimately do for the first time in its history on September 12th, 2001, the day after al Qaeda had taken down New York’s Twin Towers)?
Fortunately, that scenario never arose. Instead, Kennedy dispatched an emissary to France’s then President Charles de Gaulle bringing aerial photos of Soviet ballistic missiles being installed in Cuba. De Gaulle told the emissary that he accepted the word of the American president and did not wish to see the photographic evidence.
But Kennedy would also remark separately and quite acidly that the only thing worse than being an enemy of the United States was being an ally or friend. How right he was. Who would accept the word of an American president today or of the badly broken government he represents particularly post Wikileaks and Edward Snowden?
Of course, American power has relatively declined in the post-Soviet, non-bipolar world. But Congress has become terminally polarized along currently intractable party lines perplexing and worrying allies and delighting adversaries. Whether approving mindless defense budget cuts through the irrationality of sequestration or inviting the Israeli Prime Minister to address Congress to impede negotiations with Iran, responsibility for the demise of American credibility covers both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
For those of my generation, it is clear how this decline in credibility took root. All presidents dissemble. Three presidents did not tell the truth about Vietnam. While North Vietnam’s victory had no lasting geostrategic impact, it was the first war America lost outright and that did do psychological damage to the nation.
Following Watergate and the Nixon resignation, Jimmy Carter promised never to lie to the American people. Yet the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were seen as signs of American impotence. And while Ronald Reagan labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” despite his attempts to bankrupt it through an arms race, the USSR would collapse of its own weight because of an unworkable political system shortly after he left office.
That collapse, the 1991 Gulf War that restored confidence in American military might by the 100-hour campaign it took to force Iraq from Kuwait and a booming economy made the last decade of the 20th century one of American rejuvenation. Yet, partisanship has since paralyzed Congress. The grievous mishandling of wars in Afghanistan and, more so, the 2003 Iraq invasion, with minimal Congressional oversight, accelerated the dissolution of America’s international standing and credibility.
Although President Barack Obama was dealt the worst hand of any new president entering office since FDR, his belief that the U.S. “acted responsibly” in ending the Afghan and Iraqi wars defied credulity. A geostrategic catastrophe is unfolding in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. And it is largely America’s making.
Arab allies fear that America is withdrawing from the region as it “pivots” to Asia and embraces Iran as a new ally. In Europe, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and use of intimidating “hybrid” tactics including reminding all of its short range nuclear missile superiority, chips away at NATO’s Article 5 guarantees despite White House reassurances. And China’s flexing of its military muscles over the sovereignty of tiny islets is not comforting to Asian friends.
Credibility cannot be rebuilt overnight. Even the best minds of Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley have not produced PR or technological breakthroughs. Only what can be called presidential leadership will repair the damage.
To his credit, in 2006, President George W. Bush understood that Iraq was unraveling. He reversed his policies, rejected the advice of Vice President Dick Cheney and replaced his secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. Now Mr. Obama needs to act as forcefully.
A serious policy review is needed and needed now. The intellectual horsepower is already in office if the president will place his confidence in Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. They should be directed to carry out a rigorous and no holds barred review of U.S national security and foreign policy and provide alternatives. And the President must listen.
Otherwise, JFK will be proven right. The only thing worse than being an enemy of the U.S. will be remaining an American ally.
Harlan Ullman is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist as well as Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at both Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.