By Jim Lobe for IPS News
WASHINGTON, Oct 3 2013 (IPS) – Three days into the partial shutdown of the federal government, foreign policy mavens are voicing growing concern about the closure’s impact on U.S. credibility overseas.
“This sends a message to allies that they’re somewhat on their own,” according to Richard Haass, a former senior diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the New York-based think tank which has long been considered the leading institution of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
“It sends a message to adversaries, or would-be adversaries, that you’ve got a more unpredictable America,” he said in an interview featured on the CFR’s website in which he noted that the timing of the budgetary crisis, “coming on the heels of what happened and didn’t happen around Syria …reinforces the sense of American unpredictability.”
“Imagine if you had grown up anywhere else and knew America only from a distance,” sighed David Rothkopf, CEO of foreignpolicy.com in a long, woeful essay. “You may have heard of the country that led its allies to victories in two world wars. Or you may have heard of a country that was a Cold War adversary, an imperialist manipulator, a source of aid, a bully, but nonetheless a source of strength.
“Whatever the America you imagined,” he went on, “it was almost certainly not the one you see via the headlines today, a laughingstock a subject of scorn, and the inspiration not for hopes as before, but for such doubts as have never existed before.”
The immediate cause of this teeth-gnashing, of course, was the manoeuvre by a minority of Republicans in the House of Representatives associated with the extreme right-wing “Tea Party” movement – and the refusal thus far by the party’s leadership to rein them in — to hold hostage the funding of the federal government to their demands to delay or repeal a major health-care law, sometimes called “Obamacare”, approved by Congress three years ago.
The immediate result is that nearly a million “non-essential” federal workers are being furloughed pending passage of a “continuing resolution” that funds the government.
Among other things, that means the country’s national parks and museums are closed, while administrative and support services for most federal agencies, ranging from those that provide poor families with supplemental food allowances to others that work on national security, are severely short-staffed.
While active-duty members of the military are not affected, many of the Pentagon’s civilian employees have been sent home. Nearly three out of four of the vast intelligence community’s civilian workforce have also been furloughed, the director of national intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, told Congress Wednesday, prompting the Senate Intelligence Committee’s chair, Dianne Feinstein to call the shutdown “the biggest gift that we could possibly give our enemies.”
In strictly foreign-policy terms, the budget impasse is already having an impact. The State Department announced Wednesday that some U.S. contributions to U.N. and other international organisations, as well as peacekeeping operations, have been suspended. Similarly, the disbursement of funds used to buy military equipment and training for U.S. allies, including Israel, will be delayed.
The crisis is also disrupting the administration’s much-touted strategic “pivot” toward Asia.
The White House announced Wednesday that Malaysia and the Philippines – whose growing tensions with China over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea have given Washington a major opening – will be dropped from President Barack Obama’s scheduled trip to Southeast Asia next week.
Administration officials told reporters that the ongoing budgetary crisis could yet force him to cancel the rest of his trip – to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali, Indonesia, and the East Asia Summit in Brunei – and send Secretary of State John Kerry in his place.
If so, it would be the third time in as many years that domestic problems prevented presidential visits to Asia.
“The U.S. government shutdown and President Obama’s decision to truncate his trip to Asia will not change facts on the ground overnight,” according to Michael Mazza, an Asia specialist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), writing on the ‘National Interest’ website Thursday.
“They will, however, reinforce two related narratives that have gained purchase in the region: that the pivot is a slogan more than a policy and that the United States is becoming the ‘paper tiger’ that Mao Zedong once described. Those narratives may not be accurate, but in the realm of geopolitics, perceptions matter.”
While the shutdown is already disrupting normal government operations, and particularly the lives of the “non-essential” and their families, of greater concern is the possibility that the ongoing stand-off could continue through Oct. 17, the date on which, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the federal government will run out of cash, possibly sending the country into default for the first time in its history.
“In the event that a debt limit impasse were to lead to a default, it could have a catastrophic effect on not just financial markets, but also on job creation, consumer spending and economic growth,” according to a Treasury report issued Thursday, which said the impact “could last for more than a generation.”
That concern was echoed a few blocks away by the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde. “The government shutdown is bad enough, but failure to raise the debt ceiling would be far worse, and could very seriously damage not only the U.S. economy, but the entire global economy,” she warned.
Just the fact that such a possibility looms larger each day the shutdown continues is harming Washington’s credibility as a “great power”, according to the CFR’s Haass.
“We’ve reached the point now where the greatest threat to our national security, for the immediate and the foreseeable future, is not some other country or organisation; it’s increasingly our own political dysfunction,” he said.
That assessment was echoed in part by Rothkopf who put the “great lion’s share” of the blame for the current crisis on the Republican Party that most observers now see as increasingly incoherent and hostage to its most radical elements.
The “watching world doesn’t see the details…. How can they think anything but that this is a political system in extremis, a country likely in decline?” he asked, complaining of an absence of leadership on virtually every level, including the administration’s and Congress’ recent fumbling over whether to take military action against Syria.
Indeed, the current budget impasse and the great risks it carries if it continues too long should be instructive to those hawks who have long identified Washington’s “credibility” overseas with its readiness to use military force, according to Micah Zenko, a senior CFR fellow.
“For those who claimed that attacking Syria with cruise missiles was required to maintain U.S. credibility in the eyes of Iran’s Supreme Leader, doesn’t Capitol Hill’s behaviour over the past week do more to demonstrate America’s incompetence?” he noted this week on the cfr.org site.
“If the foundations of functioning governance are impossible at home, shouldn’t U.S. allies question America’s commitments to their security thousands of miles away?”
Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.