With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the U.S. became the world's only superpower -- Uncle Sam would say, "Jump," and the response would be, "How high?" This has not continued; if anything, on today's world stage, Uncle Sam increasingly resembles Rodney "I don't get no respect" Dangerfield. We cannot even kill off a few ragtag third-world pirates, let alone impose our will on Iran or make Hugo Chávez nervous.
There's a simple explanation: we are no longer feared. Superpowers of yesteryear, going back to the Greeks and Romans, were feared for a reason -- they leveled a city to make an example. Today, by contrast, Uncle Sam relies on cajoling, bribery (think North Korea), entreating puny leaders of inchoate states (special envoys to the PLO's Mahmoud Abbas) and otherwise playing weak hands. We have gone from resolve to U.N. resolution. We've forgotten Machiavelli's sage advice: since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.
Being feared does not require bombing Iran into the Stone Age, though that would certainly terrify North Korea and even slow down the Somali pirates. Being feared is when your enemy believes that you are willing to use overwhelming, deadly force, and this need not require nuking anybody. The trick is creating a credible, threatening persona -- convincing your enemy that while you may speak softly, you also carry a big stick and are willing to use it. Israel long ago learned this lesson, regardless of world outrage.
Unfortunately, an ability to project a "don't mess with Uncle Sam or you'll be sorry" persona escapes today's presidential qualification list. Ronald Reagan was the last president who truly embodied this quality. He was neither a personally violent man nor physically menacing, and he certainly eschewed bombast. Yet, when all was said and done, he was not to be antagonized. Perhaps "unschooled," blunt language swayed our enemies. Reagen also used big sticks to swat flies, and this hardly went unnoticed. Recall him sending American warplanes to avenge the Libya-organized terrorist attack on American soldiers in Berlin. One can almost imagine a movie in which Reagan says, "Well Moamar, I bet you don't think I'll launch an air strike on your desert tent for killing some of our boys, but ask yourself one question: 'Do you feel lucky?'" It was no accident that the Iranian hostage crisis ended within minutes of Reagan's inauguration -- the Iranians had already absorbed President Carter's hardest shot in the failed rescue attempt of April 24, 1980. It was a pathetic, incompetent gesture befitting an airhead peanut farmer, but who knew what the wild-man cowboy Reagan might attempt?
Clinton and Bush were hardly Andrew Jackson incarnate, but Barack Obama is the opposite. Everything about Obama, regardless of his "tough" Chicago activist background, suggests a man not taken seriously by foreign dictators. His is the toughness of academic infighting or bureaucratic maneuvering. Saul Alinsky was a genius on intimidating American corporations or stealing elections, but these lessons are immaterial when confronting tyrants starving and beheading their enemies.
This wimp quality is most apparent when Obama travels abroad to "represent" the U.S. Make no mistake: foreign leaders scrutinize these events to size up the president. Perhaps his troubled childhood ingrained in him the habit of appeasing bullies. As one peruses his speeches, there is absolutely nothing in them suggesting woe to those who cross Uncle Sam. At bottom, he is asking the world to like America, please, pretty please, and if you do, I'll be your best friend. This solicitation might fly in Norway when Peace Prizes are awarded, but it will bomb in Iran.
In his July 24, 2008 Berlin speech, Obama spoke of being "a fellow citizen of the world," with an American mother but a father who grew up herding goats in Kenya while his grandfather was a cook and domestic servant for the British (picture class-conscious Germans hearing this "proud" pedigree). He recalled how the U.S. and German people overcame the Berlin blockade (June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949), though the U.S. military was no match for the much larger nearby Soviet army, a view that ignores the then-U.S. monopoly on nuclear weapons (and a sitting president who had already dropped two). Then, out of absolutely nowhere, he told his audience, "As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya." Even in environmentally conscious Germany, such gratuitous throwaway lines are undoubtedly judged as ill-informed pandering. This was before Obama's election, but his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo would remove all doubt regarding Obama's toughness. It was an exercise in self-humiliation, as if the assembled Muslims, not the U.S., were the superpower. The president asserted, "For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt's advancement. And together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress." He then claimed some remarkable accomplishments for Islam: the order of algebra, the magnetic compass, a mastery of pens and printing, wondrous architecture, plus timeless poetry and cherished music. Islam was also hailed for its religious tolerance and racial equality. As for Muslims in America, they have stood for civil rights and excelled in sports.
And just to make sure that his audience grasped America's military might, Obama explained how we plan to spend billions on schools and hospitals in Pakistan and Afghanistan while pulling our troops out of Iraq by 2012. These are hardly worlds to inspire fear, let alone respect.
This is a compulsive disorder. On August 11, 2010, Obama continued with the lies when celebrating Ramadan in the White House:
These rituals remind us of the principles that we hold in common, and Islam's role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings. Ramadan is a celebration of a faith known for great diversity and racial equality. And here in the United States, Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America and that American Muslims have made extraordinary contributions to our country. And today, I want to extend my best wishes to the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world -- and your families and friends -- as you welcome the beginning of Ramadan.
Imagine Kim Jong-il, Hugo Chávez, or any other tinpot tyrant reading theses speeches. Perhaps the Somali pirates are waiting for American subsidized health care. Is this a man who strikes panic into the hearts of those who would mess with Uncle Sam?
There is nothing to contradict this personal wimpiness. To exaggerate only slightly, if Obama really gets angry, he may dispatch his failed political rival Secretary of State (or worse, the fearsome Joe Biden) to warn the bad guys that unless they stop hurting Uncle Sam, they're going to get stockings of coal next season (Christmas or holidays obviously constitute impermissible offensiveness).
What would Teddy Roosevelt say?
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com