Mort Zuckerman makes a lot of questionable claims in this article, but the most exaggerated claims might be the ones that most readers probably won’t give a second thought:
We also benefit from the fact that most countries distrust the United States far less than they distrust one another [bold mine-DL], so we uniquely have the power to build coalitions. As a result, most of the world still looks to Washington for help in their region and protection against potential regional threats.
These are badly misleading half-truths. There are perhaps a dozen or so countries that truly fit these descriptions, but for the other 180-odd nations these are false or irrelevant. It may be true that Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast distrust one another more than either distrusts the U.S., but that has no practical significance. In most cases, there are no major potential regional threats, or at least there are no meaningful threats from state actors, so the need for U.S. protection is minimal or non-existent across much of the world. The U.S. does have client states that our government arms, and it is certainly true that several of these states trust the U.S. more than they trust their neighbors, but one reason for this is that the U.S. has armed them specifically to use their military power for questionable goals of regional destabilization in the name of fighting terrorism or subverting authoritarian governments Washington dislikes. One example that comes to mind is Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia at Washington’s behest. Often enough when distrust exists, the U.S. stokes it to keep some client states firmly in our orbit. I don’t think that’s what Zuckerman had in mind.
There are some states bordering Russia, the Gulf states, and a handful of East Asian states where these claims make more sense. However, all of those states are not only a distinct minority of the world’s nations, but they are also atypical and unrepresentative of “most countries.” Once we move beyond the state level to public opinion, Zuckerman’s statements go from being arguably true in some instances to being extremely shaky. It is probably still true that the Turkish government trusts the U.S. than it trusts some neighboring states, but it is harder to assume that the same is true of the Turkish public.
Our unique coalition-building power is also not so unique. Regional trading blocs and security organizations have been coming together all over the world for the last two decades, and while many of them are still in their early stages of development their existence alone suggests that mutual distrust among “most countries” is not nearly as great as Zuckerman imagines. If Zuckerman is referring to building a coalition to invade or needlessly penalize other countries, he is correct that no other government can build coalitions quite like the U.S., but then hardly any other governments are prepared or willing to do this. It is also unclear how any of this actually serves international security or American interests.
If the key assumptions in Zuckerman’s article are so questionable, it won’t be a surprise that the rest of it is badly mistaken about many things. He has resorted to the old crutch of invoking “the American people” to state his own criticisms, except that here he presumes to speak on behalf of “the global community”:
The reviews of Obama’s performance have been disappointing. He has seemed uncomfortable in the role of leading other nations, and often seems to suggest there is nothing special about America’s role in the world. The global community was puzzled over the pictures of Obama bowing to some of the world’s leaders and surprised by his gratuitous criticisms of and apologies for America’s foreign policy under the previous administration of George W. Bush.
Actually, the “global community” wasn’t puzzled by the bowing at all. They didn’t care. As I recall, the only people who even noticed it were Republican critics of the administration. The “global community” couldn’t have been surprised by “gratuitous criticisms of and apologies for America’s foreign policy under the previous administration of George W. Bush,” because on the whole Obama has refrained from making very many specific criticisms of Bush when he has been abroad and there have been no apologies. Again, practically the only people on the planet who have identified a so-called “apology tour” are American Republicans, because they are the only ones with an incentive to invent something that never happened in order to score points against Obama. The idea that Obama is uncomfortable with American leadership and American exceptionalism is false and it is one that is almost unique to conservative pundits and politicians in the U.S. The only people abroad who seem to share in this delusion are their center-right Anglosphere counterparts.
The funniest part of the column might be this line:
One Middle East authority, Fouad Ajami, pointed out that Obama seems unaware that it is bad form and even a great moral lapse to speak ill of one’s own tribe while in the lands of others.
Zuckerman carefully omits that this “authority” is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and a reliable defender of almost everything the Bush administration ever did or tried to do in the Near East. His job for the last eighteen months has been to find fault with anything the administration does in the region. To believe that Ajami has correctly described the reaction to Obama’s “apologies” and criticisms, one first has to believe that Obama has issued apologies and made particularly withering criticisms of past U.S. government policies. Since Obama has become President, this isn’t the case, at least not for those of us living in the real world.
Other items in Zuckerman’s indictment are even less persuasive. Sarkozy has scorned Obama’s idea of a world without nuclear weapons, but that doesn’t mean very much. Obama has shown over the last year and a half that he has no intention of trying to eliminate U.S. and allied arsenals, and there was no reason to think that he would. The British have been talking about the end of the “special relationship” for a long time, and the main reason why many of their politicians began openly ridiculing or challenging the definition of the relationship more recently was their resentment of British subservience to the U.S. during the Bush administration. Putin will say what he likes, but U.S.-Russian relations have meaningfully improved in the last 18 months and this has yielded tangible benefits for the U.S. Zuckerman’s criticism of Obama’s China visit is the conventional one much of the American media made at the time, which was completely superficial. At the time, the media missed out on the limited but real substantive success of that visit.
On Iran sanctions, Zuckerman makes one of the more insipid hawkish criticisms of Obama:
Could it be that these long-standing U.S. allies [Turkey and Brazil], who gave cover to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, have decided that there is no cost in lining up with America’s most serious enemies and no gain in lining up with this administration?
Could it be that the governments of Turkey and Brazil make decisions that they believe serve international stability and help the U.S. out of an impasse? That this obviously never even occurred to Zuckerman tells us just how superficial and shoddy his criticisms are. Zuckerman makes no mention of the nuclear deal Turkey and Brazil negotiated with Iran, so he cannot acknowledge that they voted against sanctions to try to keep their fuel-swap deal alive. Having decided that voting against the weak sanctions resolution represents treachery and evidence that Turkey and Brazil are ” lining up with America’s most serious enemies,” Zuckerman inevitably concludes that these allies have been “lost” because Obama has not been
arrogant and confrontational strong enough. He cannot seem to grasp that these governments would have opposed sanctions regardless of who was in the White House, because they correctly regard imposing additional sanctions on Iran as futile and unnecessary. That would entail actually thinking about the nuclear issue as something more than a loyalty test that we force other governments to take, and Zuckerman clearly has no intention of doing that.
I could go on, as the rest of the article is not much better, but it is already pretty clear that the only incompetence and amateurism Zuckerman has demonstrated here is that of his own criticisms. It’s just another reminder that Obama continues to be extraordinarily lucky in his critics and opponents. Obama has made his share of mistakes, and a more capable, honest opposition could do a lot of damage to him between now and the next presidential election, but his hawkish critics seem to prefer dwelling in a fantasy world and like to attack Obama for things he didn’t do or blame him for things for which he is not responsible.