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Many small cuts wounding US global clout

So many international crises are hammering the Obama administration this summer — Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan — that smaller but still significant blows to U.S. policy and prestige are easily overlooked. One came last week from Georgia, a former Soviet republic and once-close American ally.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, an illiberal oligarch who has controlled Georgia’s government since winning an election in 2012, was warned repeatedly by the Obama administration not to pursue a criminal case against former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia’s pro-democracy revolution a decade ago and peacefully handed over power after his electoral defeat. Yet on July 28 the government filed transparently political charges against Saakashvili, as well as four other top leaders of his party.

This flouting of a U.S. red line by a small country might seem relatively inconsequential — Saakashvili, after all, is not under arrest but in Ukraine advising its new pro-Western government. But it is part of a larger trend. Ally after ally of the United States, including regimes that, like Georgia, depend heavily on Washington for military and economic aid, have begun openly defying the Obama administration and, in a few cases, deliberately humiliating its envoys.

Just in the last two months, Egypt sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to long prison terms on flagrantly bogus charges the day after Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he had discussed their case with Cairo’s new strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. Bahrain, the Persian Gulf host of the U.S. 5th Fleet, expelled the assistant secretary of state for human rights after he met with members of a legal opposition party. Even tiny Aruba, whose foreign policy is run by the Netherlands, blindsided Washington by releasing a senior Venezuelan general it had arrested on a U.S. drug trafficking warrant. Apparently, it was considered easier to offend the Obama administration than the Chavista regime in Caracas.

Then there is Thailand, a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States, where the army carried out a military coup against an elected government even though it knew U.S. law would mandate a cutoff of military aid; and Myanmar, which backtracked on political reform promises its president made personally to Obama last year.

“It’s like a bank run,” one congressional foreign policy staffer told me last week. An international consensus seems to have gelled that the United States can’t be counted on to uphold its commitments and red lines, even with allies; the result is a free-for-all that can be seen as much in the nose-thumbing of Georgia as in Israel’s high-profile rejection of U.S. diplomacy.

How did President Barack Obama lose his clout? His supporters portray him as the mostly innocent victim of mistakes by his predecessor and a disorderly period in global affairs. But many foreign diplomats and officials I’ve spoken to see it differently. They point to a series of steps by Obama that accelerated the collapse of U.S. influence. First among them is the imprudent military withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, tied by Obama to arbitrary (or political) timetables rather than conditions on the ground.

Next comes Obama’s decision not to go forward with airstrikes against Syria after its use of chemical weapons last year. It’s true that the president managed to leverage his stand down into a mostly successful operation to eliminate Damascus’ declared chemical weapons stockpile. Yet many senior foreign officials, especially in Asia, see in the administration’s Syria decision an augur of likely unwillingness to follow through on other red lines — whether in the South China Sea or on Iran’s nuclear program.

Then there were Obama’s speeches. At the United Nations last fall, he announced that U.S. human rights concerns would be subordinated with governments “who work with us on our core interests,” which he defined as including the free flow of oil but not the promotion of democracy or prevention of genocide. That was taken to heart by the rulers of Egypt and Bahrain, who abandoned their previous efforts to satisfy U.S. concerns about political prisoners and tolerance of opposition. At West Point in May, Obama gave a speech that, I’m reliably told, dismayed Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi; it hailed the “political reforms opening a once-closed society” without mentioning the generals’ broken promises, thereby encouraging more backsliding.

Perhaps the most gratuitous administration failing has been its reluctance to respond to the slights inflicted on it even by minor powers. Bahrain’s extraordinary expulsion of State’s human rights envoy prompted only a routine statement of “concern”; so did the criminal charges against Saakashvili. The administration could easily punish and deter such governments; ambassadors could be recalled, military aid withheld, exercises and official visits canceled. Instead, the message goes out that the Obama administration can be defied with impunity — and the bank run continues.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post.

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