Outside View: The American Follies

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator

BUCHAREST, Romania, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- It was neither inevitable nor predictable that the United States could become a global laughingstock either so quickly or near universally.

The incredible ineptness, heavy handedness and indeed incompetence of its government have made the United States into a prime-time piata. Folly isn't too strong a descriptor.


A seemingly long time ago and despite extended spikes of anti-Americanism, the United States was the undisputed leader of the Free World. Perhaps the end of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of the meaning of the so-called Free World made it inevitable that the United States would descend from position of super or indispensible power (as a former secretary of state labeled the country) to at best first among equals. But it wasn't foreseeable the descent would be so great.

Yes, during the 1950s and the anti-communist pogrom notably led by the venomous U.S. Sen. "Tail Gunner" Joe McCarthy. R-Wis., and throughout the Vietnamese War a decade and a half later, the United States rightly deserved many slings and arrows directed against it.


But ridicule and derision never fired anti-American sentiments that persisted around the world until today. And, at times, being an American is painful especially when the greater good and larger potential the United States possesses to lead the world remain dormant and wasted.

How did we get here? After World War II, Europe and Asia lay in waste. The United States was probably as dominant as any power had been in history. That dominance was used to rebuild Europe and Asia, making enemies not only friends but also flourishing democracies.

Big events eroded the United States' international standing: the Vietnam War; Watergate; the failed raid to secure Americans seized as hostages in Tehran in 1979.

Yet, at the end of George H.W. Bush's presidency in 1993, the United States deserved the appellation of sole superpower with appropriate standing in the international community with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent building of a Europe whole and free; smashing Saddam Hussein and ignominiously throwing Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991; and reviving the U.S. economy.

Among the skill sets Bill Clinton took to the presidency, luck and good fortune topped the list, beginning with being benefactor of George H.W. Bush's four years. Aside from the Lewinsky affair and flurries of Republican allegations of wrong doing as Arkansas' governor -- unproven -- his only real international crisis was over Kosovo and Serbia.


Although it was an ugly win after 78 days of bombing a fifth-rate Serbian military (doing at the end of the day little real damage), Slobodan Milosevic yielded. And a win is a win.

George W. Bush's unreadiness for high office led first to alienating Russia with unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and after Sept. 11, 2001, descended into catastrophe.

Quickly evicting the Taliban from Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, the Bush team ignored the "what next" question of setting in place a stable and functioning government in favor of the fatally flawed and misinformed decision to attack Iraq for a second time that would later send international opinion of the United States into storm cellars far underground.

Thus, when Barack Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, the new president had an unprecedented opportunity to lead the United States back to top-tier status.

Not only did the president, along with Republicans and fellow Democrats, fail. The failure is far worse than international derision of U.S. incompetence. The last few months of U.S. politics were textbook cases of how to destroy any semblance of competence and confidence both at home and abroad.


The United States' credibility and leadership are on the line.

It takes more than the shutdown of government and failure to pass a budget to sink a village or in this case a country. The staggering incompetence in rolling out the Affordable Health Care Act is mind numbing. The president's outright untruthful statement about not losing existing health insurance policies is actionable.

And the firestorm over allegations of National Security Agency surveillance of tens of millions of Europeans along with at least three dozen heads of state must sweep the equivalent of international academy awards for derelict performance by leading and supporting actors.

The back-of-the-hand treatment given to the United States by the Saudis with direct criticism of Obama's policy toward Syria and the region (and turning down a U.N. Security Council seat) along with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's condescension toward the president are further insults to the United States' already tattered reputation.

For international observers, the main question is this only the first act of even greater folly yet to come.

Sadly, neither solution nor explanation of the United States' new role as international laughing stock comes to mind. If Obama could lead, as many critics fear he cannot, what can he do?


Stay tuned as the American follies continue.


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


(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.)

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