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Outside View: America don't get no respect

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Sept. 21, 2011 at 6:47 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- The late American comedian Rodney Dangerfield's signature line was "I don't get no respect." Dangerfield's routine was packed with jokes about how anything from inanimate objects such as refrigerators to children and pets managed to disrespect him.

Today, sadly, is the United States becoming a global Rodney Dangerfield? No matter where one looks, America ain't getting much respect.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was in Europe last week telling his European colleagues to capitalize what could be an imploding banking system. Leading newspapers blared that European bankers bluntly rejected Geithner's admonishments. The upshot is that U.S. advice isn't quite what it used to be.

The sorry fiasco in Congress over raising the debt ceiling limit was perhaps the most stunning example of a hopelessly paralyzed political system. A tsunami of harshly negative opinion in the United States and abroad overwhelmed what little respect for America's politics was left.

And the unfortunate phrase coming from the White House over the military campaign to oust Libya's Moammar Gadhafi of "leading from behind," never repudiated by U.S. President Barack Obama, was a further breach in confidence and respect for the United States by many of its allies let alone its adversaries and others wishing America no good.

The latest Washington tell-all book just hit the streets accusing the White House of chronic indecision, a hostile work environment for women and a president who couldn't control his team. The White House rejected those allegations. However, among the political literati in Washington, this White House is perceived as among the most dysfunctional in a long time. That perception further destroys respect for the administration and its ability to lead the nation.

Given the economic woes and the failure to complete what seems to be an unending recovery with unemployment stalled around 9 percent and a poverty rate at 15 percent -- up from about 11 percent only a decade ago -- Obama's approval rating is down to the 30 percentile range.

As low as that is, respect for Congress is hardly discernible with approval ratings barely in double figures giving the president a 20-25 point advantage over his elected colleagues on Capitol Hill.

This absence of respect translates to foreign policy.

NATO, the bedrock of Western security for the past 62 years is deeply divided over its purpose. War-weariness in Afghanistan in particular but also Libya; economic austerity on steroids; possible fatal flaws in the European banking system; and politically weak minority governments call into question commitments of resources and will necessary to maintaining a vibrant military alliance especially since the threat for which NATO was created has been gone for more than 20 years.

Instead of showing imagination and leadership with a NATO summit scheduled for May of next year in Chicago, given other more immediate crises and issues, the White House has kept that planning on a back burner. All of this exacerbates the perception of an absence of U.S. leadership or, worse, interest in the alliance.

Palestinian demands for recognition by the United Nations are a direct challenge not just to Israel. The United States is Israel's patron. While the United States will try to deflect or veto recognition, that won't enhance its standing with many members especially in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

A final example of disrespect, senior U.S. officials say that last week's attacks attributed to the Haqqani network against military and diplomatic headquarters in Kabul were a signal to the United States of the reach of certain elements in Pakistan to affect events in Afghanistan.

Coming just days before the weekend meeting in Spain among NATO chiefs of defense and the last opportunity U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen had before he retires to see Pakistani army chief Gen. A.P. Kayani, the attacks may not have been coincidental. If true, that speaks volumes.

More depressingly, the 2012 presidential campaign is off and running with a vengeance. Republican candidates are embarked on often scorched Earth campaigns to demolish opponents and, of course, to attack the incumbent. This process hasn't bolstered America's image. And it is just starting with nearly 14 months to go.

America is adrift. Absence of respect is one measure of the desperate state of the leadership and governing capacity of the world's most powerful country. Despite demands for the president to fire key staff or become less loved and more feared, changing this reality and its perception will not happen quickly if it happens at all.

Some believe these conditions are self-correcting and will rebuild respect. Perhaps.

But, since 1776, fundamental self-correction in America occurred only in 1861 with a bloody civil war that resolved previously irreconcilable constitutional contradictions and 1941 with a world war that ultimately made America a superpower.

What lies ahead could be equally momentous -- for good or for ill.

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(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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