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Tomgram: Dilip Hiro, Obama's Flip-Flop Leadership Style

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Several past TD posts might be of interest for those delving into Dilip Hiro's provocative piece on American power in the Obama era: Tony Karon's "Israel Won't Change Unless the Status Quo Has a Downside," Ira Chernus's "Blood or Treasure? Obama's Crucial Choice in the Middle East," and my own recent piece, "Obama's Flailing Wars." Note as well a small victory in the Arctic -- and Washington. On Tuesday, TD posted Subhankar Banerjee's "BPing the Arctic." It was at the leading edge of a rising tide of warnings about Shell Oil's plans to drill for oil this summer in Alaska's Arctic waters, an ecologically rich but particularly extreme off-shore environment. Now, the Obama administration is reportedly announcing a suspension of exploratory oil drilling there until at least 2011. The next TomDispatch post will appear on Tuesday, June 1st, after the Memorial Day weekend.]

What do you make of it when Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal now refers to the only significant offensive he's set in motion -- the attempt to drive the Taliban out of Marjah, a collection of villages in Helmand Province -- as "a bleeding ulcer"? Or what about his upcoming summer "offensive" to drive the Taliban out of the second largest Afghan city, Kandahar, which has recently been verbally downgraded from an "operation" to something called "Cooperation for Kandahar," now also referred to as a "military presence" so as not to offend local sensibilities with a hint of the coming violence. What do you make of it when Dion Nissenbaum and Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers report in mid-May that the American non-operation in Kandahar, scarcely beginning, is already showing signs of "faltering," while Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post describes it as a "go-for-broke move that even its authors are unsure will succeed," adding: "There is no Plan B."

Or what about when Gareth Porter, who has been doing top-notch reporting on the Afghan War for Inter Press Service, points out McChrystal's striking recent Kandahar flip-flop. Back in March, his team was talking about getting rid of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's half-brother Wali Karzai, Kandahar's major powerbroker, a man reputedly deeply involved in the drug trade, and an asset or former asset of the CIA. ("The only way to clean up Chicago," said McChrystal's intelligence chief General Michael Flynn back then, "is to get rid of Capone.") More recently, however, they have executed a 180-degree turn and decided not only to leave him in place, but to intensify their work with him. "The reaffirmation of ties between the U.S. and [Wali] Karzai," writes Porter, "ensures that the whole military effort in the province is locked into Karzai's political strategy for maintaining his grip on power."

Consider this but a brief snapshot of Obama's flailing war in Afghanistan. As TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro makes clear in his latest canny analysis, the president of what was, until recently, the global power is losing his grip not just on Afghanistan, but on the planet. Hiro, whose latest book, After Empire: The Birth of A Multipolar World, offers a deep look into international power shifts, has been writing about the downward slope of American power at this site since 2007. Tom

The American Century Is So Over
Obama's Rudderless Foreign Policy Underscores America's Waning Power

By Dilip Hiro

Irrespective of their politics, flawed leaders share a common trait. They generally remain remarkably oblivious to the harm they do to the nation they lead. George W. Bush is a salient recent example, as is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When it comes to foreign policy, we are now witnessing a similar phenomenon at the Obama White House.

Here is the Obama pattern: Choose a foreign leader to pressure. Threaten him with dire consequences if he does not bend to Washington's will. When he refuses to submit and instead responds vigorously, back off quickly and overcompensate for failure by switching into a placatory mode.

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In his first year-plus in office, Barack Obama has provided us with enough examples to summarize his leadership style. The American president fails to objectively evaluate the strength of the cards that a targeted leader holds and his resolve to play them.

Obama's propensity to retreat at the first sign of resistance shows that he lacks both guts and the strong convictions that are essential elements distinguishing statesmen from politicians. By pursuing a rudderless course in his foreign policy, by flip-flopping in his approach to other leaders, he is also inadvertently furnishing hard evidence to those who argue that American power is on the decline -- and that the downward slide of the globe's former "sole superpower" is irreversible.

Those who have refused to buckle under Obama's initial threats and hardball tactics (and so the impact of American power) include not just the presidents of China, a first-tier mega-nation, and Brazil, a rising major power, but also the leaders of Israel, a regional power heavily dependent on Washington for its sustenance, and Afghanistan, a client state -- not to mention the military junta of Honduras, a minor entity, which stood up to the Obama administration as if it were the Politburo of former Soviet Union.

Flip-Flop on Honduras

By overthrowing the civilian government of President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, the Honduran generals acquired the odious distinction of carrying out the first military coup in Central America in the post-Cold War era. What drove them to it? The precipitating factor was Zelaya's decision to have a non-binding survey on holding a referendum that November about convening a Constituent Assembly to redraft the constitution.

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Denouncing the coup as a "terrible precedent" for the region and demanding its reversal, President Obama initially insisted: "We do not want to go back to a dark past. We always want to stand with democracy."

Those words should have been followed by deeds like recalling his ambassador in Tegucigalpa (just as Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela did) and an immediate suspension of the American aid on which the country depends. Instead, what followed was a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the administration would not formally designate the ouster as a military coup "for now" -- even though the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European Union had already done so.

This backtracking encouraged the Honduran generals and their Republican supporters in Congress. They began to stonewall, while a top notch public relations firm in Washington, hired by the de facto government of the military's puppet president Roberto Micheletti, went to work.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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