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2010 Annual Assessment

The defeat suffered by the Democratic Party in the US mid-term elections (November 2, 2010) stemmed from the disappointment caused by President Obama’s failure to ensure recovery from the deep economic crisis in which it has been embroiled since 2008. The grim economic figures (especially in terms of unemployment and national debt), the dearth of foreign policy achievements and the rise of China, India and other powers all highlight the question whether we are in the midst of a transformation in the US’s (and the West in general) international standing. This question is crucial for Israel and the Jewish people. The unprecedented thriving of the Jewish people in recent decades is significantly correlated with the US, both as home to nearly half of the Jewish people, and as a supportive strategic partner to Israel. Any crack in the US position in the international arena therefore holds dangerous implications for the robustness of Israel and the Jewish people.

The Chinese and Indian economies continue to grow and are leading the process of recovery from the global economic crisis.

The ongoing economic crisis supports the school of thought that argues that the US is on a course of historic decline. Proponents of this approach argue that the uni-polar moment that characterized the period immediately following the collapse of the
USSR and the end of the Cold War has ended, and that the geopolitical arena is consolidating into a new, multi-polar world order. (Some even suggest that
until a new and functioning world order is consolidated, the international system will be marked by disorder, making the challenges of the times – which require increased international cooperation – even more difficult to cope with.) According to this view, the economic crisis, the worst in the last 75 years, is a severe blow to the geopolitical power of the West and causes the continued shift of economic might to the East, at the expense of the US and Europe. The economic crisis has exacerbated in Europe trends that undermine the very concept of the European Union and raises doubts regarding the future of the Euro as a viable common currency. The appointment of lackluster figures to EU leadership positions (November 19, 2009) indicates the corrosion in Brussels’ position and the increase in nationalist trends, which are blossoming also in response to the growing aversion to the swelling ranks of Muslim immigrants on the Continent.
The Chinese and Indian economies continue to grow and are leading the process of recovery from the global economic crisis (adding a powerful rationale for Israel and the Jewish people to strengthen their ties with the Asian world). In this view, the global center of gravity is slipping farther away from the US, who is going to lack the necessary resources to demonstrate a globe-encompassing strategic activity. Data shows that already by 2015, the US’s total debt will equal its GNP (whereas a decade ago the average national debt/GNP ratio was 35%). The harsh national debt figures indicate not only the bleak situation of the American economy but also the severe constraints on Washington’s ability to act in the international arena. The effort to reduce the debt may leave its mark on a wide range of areas: from avoiding any new wars to cuts in the foreign aid budget (which could affect Israel, which is at the top of the list of aid beneficiaries).
The “American Decline” school has its opponents, of course, who argue that the basic variables that dictate the power equation in the geopolitical arena (demography, geography, science, technology, natural resources, culture, education, etc.) have not changed significantly as a result of the economic crisis, and that it is too early to eulogize US centrality. The candidates to replace the US as world leader or at least to become part of the world’s leadership are not equipped with an ideology that can compete with the appeal of the American ethos and culture; they are far from eager to claim world leadership; and they are deeply immersed in their internal problems (authoritarian China may soon face increasing demands by its growing middle classes for representation and democratization; India is still poverty ridden, with 400 million citizens still living without electricity).

The mid-term defeat raises the question whether President Obama’s desire to focus efforts on foreign policy in general and on the peace process in the Middle East in particular would increase or decrease in the coming years. The coming months should provide some answers, but it is still worthwhile to examine where the President is positioned after two years in office. Obama’s political defeat is not due to his functioning in the international arena, but to his incapability to provide achievements in the struggle against the economic crisis and unemployment. Obama succeeded where his predecessors have failed, and has managed to pass the Health Reform Bill (March 23, 2010), but here too, the bill has spawned controversy and severe criticism, citing misguided presidential priorities in a time when all resources should have been channeled to economic recovery and job creation. The image of a weakened president leading a weakened superpower is eating away at Obama’s ability to act successfully in the international arena. Upon his entry to the White House, and in declared contrast to his predecessor’s approach, Obama has introduced a foreign policy that in theory does not claim to impose US values on other countries, prefers dialog to belligerent
options and opts to conduct itself in the international arena through collaborative multi-national moves rather than as a single ‘super-player.’ Obama turned to US declared enemies in speeches and letters, calling upon them to “unclench their fists” and meet his extended hand in peace.1 Within a few months he was able to transform the anti-American sentiments that had escalated during his predecessor’s term, and even won the Nobel Prize for Peace (October 9, 2009) as a token of appreciation of his wishes and not necessarily his actual accomplishments.

The image of a weakened president leading a weakened superpower is eating away at Obama’s ability to act successfully in the international arena

Two years later, it appears that these changes of atmosphere are not enough to secure success in the difficult tests threatening world stability: the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, poverty, nuclear proliferation, Iran, North Korea, the Israeli-Arab conflict, radical Islam, terrorism, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and more. It appears that the events and processes that fuel points of crisis around the world may not be exclusively derived from the content and style of US policy, but are largely the result of rooted problems and long-term trends. Indeed, the picture at mid-term is quite bleak. Iran continues to make progress in its nuclear program, and has not yet succumbed to sanctions. Islamic terrorism keeps rising and threatening, the Arab world is disappointed by the broken promises given in the Cairo Speech (June 4, 2009), and especially by the lack of progress in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the failure to stop the settlement activity (which, according to Obama in Cairo, is illegitimate and must be stopped). Other fronts of US foreign policy provide reasons for frustration. China is increasingly more aggressive in its dealings with its neighbors, while refusing to obey the US demand to avoid artificial devaluation of the Chinese currency, in a way that is detrimental to the US economy. North Korea, a nuclear power facing an imminent change of power, is not deterred. It did not hesitate to drown a South Korean warship, causing the death of 46 sailors (March 26, 2010), and to fire deadly artillery (November 23, 2010) on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

Islamic terrorism keeps rising and threatening, and the Arab world is disappointed by the broken promises given by Obama in his Cairo speech (June 2009)

Iraq:

As of August 2010, the American presence in Iraq was reduced to 50,000 soldiers, and those are expected to return to the US by the end of 2011. Iran aspires to fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal, already increasing its subversive activities and managing to push for a new Iraqi government that relies on a Shiite coalition led by Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Qaeda has proven that it was still a force to be reckoned with by murderous attacks in Baghdad. Thus the question remains open whether Iraq could overcome the religious and ethnic divisions and function as a state, or become a focus of internal violence and external meddling (by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria) which could spill out and undermine the stability of the entire region.

The Pakistani-Afghani Complex:

According to October 2010 polls, six out of ten Americans think that the war in Afghanistan is lost, and half of the interviewees do not have any idea what the war is about. Obama made it clear (March 27, 2009) that the US’ goal was to defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future. For that goal to be achieved, the struggle against Taliban fighters must go on, as they are harboring and aiding al-Qaeda and thwarting the efforts of the central government in Kabul to govern the country. In his campaign for presidency in 2008 Obama argued that the threat to US security was greater from Afghanistan than from Iraq, and that from his point of view this was “a war of necessity”. On December 1, 2009, Obama decided to dispatch 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, while at the same time promising to withdraw them all in July 2011. Commanders in the battlefield have difficulty understanding how they are supposed to achieve victory in such a short time, when according to their view such victory largely depends on a patient reconstruction of the local government’s capabilities. The talks recently initiated between Karzai and the Taliban leaders demonstrate the futility of the aspirations to achieve an unequivocal victory in Afghanistan. These dismal facts were taken into consideration by the NATO members who have decided (in Lisbon, November 20, 2010) to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan by 2014. Instability continued to characterize the situation in Pakistan as well, where in addition to the continued presence of al-Qaeda warriors in the tribal regions on the Afghan border, there are severe economic problems, internal conflicts and ongoing tensions vis-à-vis India. The great floods that inundated 20% of the country’s territories (July, 2010) exposed the poor infrastructure and the total incompetence of the corrupt government. These in turn fuel the fears for the fate of the nuclear arsenal possessed by Pakistan and the danger that it may fall into the hands of terroristic and Islamic extremist factors. In this context, the DNI assessment (April 2009), according to which al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are striving to obtain non-conventional weapons (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) and that they would not hesitate to employ them, is still a major cause for concern.

October 2010 polls: 6 out of 10 Americans think that the war in Afghanistan is lost, half do not have any idea what the war is about

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