Truth and Consequences in the Middle East

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Considering the Obama administration’s ever wobblier attempt to impose “crippling sanctions” on Iran, the New York Times‘ David Sanger recently wrote, “The delays and the potential for a substantially watered-down resolution, Mr. Obama’s allies say, have put the administration’s credibility on the line in one of its biggest foreign policy challenges.”

Credibility.  Washington policymakers have been in search of it, have even fought wars in its name, for half a century now. In the Vietnam era, realizing that our victory weapons, nuclear bombs, were essentially too powerful to use, American strategic thinkers sought others ways to project, if not power commensurate with our arsenal, then an image of power commensurate with it—”an image of vast national strength and of unwavering determination to use that strength in world affairs,” as Jonathan Schell explained in his remarkable book from that era, Time of Illusion. Unfortunately, when you put your faith in “credibility,” you also offer power to others in whose eyes you must, of course, be credible.

By that standard, in the age of Obama, the United States has reached a curious moment of rising incredibility on the global stage. Indeed, nothing illustrated this onrushing state more vividly than the whack the Israelis recently gave Vice President Joe Biden—and so the global image of American power. While Biden was in Israel paying homage to that country and trying to jumpstart the “peace process,” Israel announced a new building program in East Jerusalem. The news wasn’t in itself particularly startling—such building in occupied lands, after all, has been a non-stop reality of Israeli policy for years. New was the stunning timing of the announcement, the way the leadership of a country remarkably dependent on American power and money evidently had no hesitation in administering a humiliating credibility-drubbing to Mr. Number Two.

Most observers have discussed this startling act largely in terms of the Middle East, but it was no less striking if you were sitting in Beijing, wondering how exactly to deal with US complaints about the value of the yuan, or in Moscow, where Russian leaders, during a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the following week, duplicated the Israelis’ act. They announced that they, too, were about to do a little more building; they were going to have Iran’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr up and running this summer, another credibility-drubbing that was more striking for its timing than its substance. Nor were they alone. As Jay Solomon and Peter Spiegel of the Wall Street Journal point out, there has been “a string of public rebukes of US foreign policy in recent weeks,” including by Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who spoke out against Iranian sanctions (also during a Clinton visit), and Syrian president Bashar Assad, who appeared with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the head of Hezbollah, “defying US calls to loosen ties with Tehran and the militants.” The Israelis, the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese… when the Europeans start to say “no,” and make announcements meant to sting while American officials are visiting, you’ll know that we’re in a new world.

In the meantime, consider Prime Minister Netanyahu’s slap (and his reiteration of Israeli building policy in his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention yesterday) a measure of a Washington with two draining wars and a host of domestic problems that finds itself increasingly incapable of projecting an image of “credibility” abroad. Fifty years ago, with the invention of what Schell called “the doctrine of credibility,” the US superpower actually gave others the power to judge. Now, the judgments are beginning to roll in. As TomDispatch regular Tony Karon, who runs the provocative Rootless Cosmopolitan website, makes clear, at least when it comes to Israel, more imagery, no matter how credible, or even more angry words alone, won’t help to change that.

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