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A Less Super America Will Be Happier

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A perceived decline in "national greatness" haunts Americans of all political persuasions. Many equate it with the drop in our superpower status. But others ask, "Are the costs of perpetually commanding the high ground worth it?" Money we spend defending the world, others spend building fast trains. In the past, countries suffering economic seizure went straight to our ER because we were deemed the only country strong enough to save them -- and ensure everyone's financial stability. Things have changed.

A crisis-ridden Europe is now knocking on China's door, not ours. America's cupboard is bare, as China's overflows. So it is now up to China to bail out European banks. And as the Chinese demand tough concessions in return, Europeans will send their resentments to the complaint department in Beijing.

The Greek prime minister's call for a referendum on a new debt deal with foreign lenders sent global markets into a dive. When a reporter asked White House press secretary Jay Carney for an official response, he said, "It is a European problem that needs to be addressed, and they have the capacity to do it." Sort of like Dad telling Junior that he has great confidence in the kid's ability to do his own homework. In other words, do it yourself.

President Obama will, of course, attend the Group of 20 economic meeting in Cannes, France. We can expect him to give Europeans a pep talk and wish them good luck. Way to go.

When Moammar Gadhafi seemed set to massacre Libyan dissidents, Europeans were especially keen to stop him. Obama basically said: "Good idea. You go first." His famous phrase -- that America would "lead from behind" -- rankled conservative hawks who prefer to stick their chests out, George W. Bush-style, and tell the world what's what. Being one of several in a coalition was somehow demeaning.

But even in Libya, America was more equal than the others. NATO took command of the air war, but soon ran out of bombs. Other countries expected that the United States would take over the hard and expensive jobs.

This time, the American response was not just a shrug and a "gosh, guess we're the only ones that can do it." Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates complained that only a handful of NATO countries spent real money on defense, and none came close to us. In 2010, the U.S. allocated 5.4 percent of its gross domestic product to the military, twice what No. 2 Britain did and three or four times what the others provided.

In his most pointed remark, Gates said that some NATO members were "apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets." Why wouldn't they be? Our unilateralists have been happy to pick up the bills, quickly depositing checks in the military-industrial complex. As a less-super power, America can insist on going Dutch.

Obama is withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq on schedule. Though it was the Bush administration's schedule, the usual suspects are accusing him of turning the country over to Iran. What it will do is turn Iraqis' ire away from us. When the electricity doesn't work or some creep sets off a car bomb, Iraqis won't blame the U.S. for not providing adequate utility or security services. And no longer able to manipulate anti-U.S. sentiment, Iranians will have to face the fact that Iraqis generally hate them.

America remains the most super of powers, but a little less dominion over all could lead to a stronger fiscal house and better conditions at home. There are several ways, after all, to measure superiority.

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