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Tough times for a superpower

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, November 30, 2010;

The secret U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks leave one overriding impression: It's hard out there for a superpower.

As of Monday, fewer than 250 of a promised 251,287 confidential State Department messages had been made public. Perhaps somewhere in that enormous trove is evidence to the contrary, but what we've seen thus far shows that post-Cold War rumors of American global hegemony are vastly overstated. If ever there were a time when being a superpower meant never having to say you're sorry, that time is long gone.

The headline-grabbing catty personal assessments of world leaders revealed in the cables are juicy but not really surprising. I mean, it's highly entertaining to read about Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi's many and varied eccentricities - his fear of flying, his reluctance to stay above the first floor of hotels, his dependence on a Ukrainian nurse described as a "voluptuous blonde" who alone "knows his routine." But Gaddafi has been daffy for a long time.

Likewise, we're not shocked to learn that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is highhanded, given that "thin-skinned and authoritarian" - which is how a diplomat describes him in a cable - is just another way of saying "French president." The news that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi enjoys "frequent late nights" and has a "penchant for partying hard" is not exactly stop-the-presses material. And describing Afghan President Hamid Karzai as "an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him" sounds mild, like saying the ocean is pretty big.

More interesting is the way Arab leaders have been encouraging the United States to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear program. Again, however, this is more a matter of degree than anything else. We knew that Iran's neighbors were wary and distrustful; we didn't know - at least, not for the record - that they were so openly hostile.

For me, the revelation is how difficult and involved it is to do what ought to be a superpower's right: push people around.

Even tinhorn despots in strategic backwaters are bold enough to defy us. One positive byproduct of George W. Bush's "shoot-first" cowboy image, we were told by supporters, was that it made America feared in the world. Hah. A July 2007 cable from the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe lays out, in humiliating detail, how dictator Robert Mugabe blithely ignored U.S. pressure for democratic reforms and continued his murderous, repressive ways.

More tragic are the cables from Afghanistan describing our impotence in a land that once was called the "graveyard of empires" and, given the Soviet Union's experience three decades ago, might well be called the "graveyard of superpowers." One message from Kabul, signed by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, describes a meeting with Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is "widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker." With understatement, the cable describes "one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt."

Remember the days when puppet regimes behaved, you know, like puppets? Not anymore, it seems.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of how tough it is these days comes in cables describing the United States' attempt to find nations willing to admit detainees from the Guantanamo prison camp. As the New York Times put it, "Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if it wanted to meet with President Obama, while the island nation of Kiribati was offered incentives worth millions of dollars to take in Chinese Muslim detainees." Neither country complied.

Those Chinese Muslims, who have been cleared of any terrorist involvement, remain a sore point. U.S. officials fear the men could face political persecution if they are sent home to China. Our diplomats leaned on Germany - a loyal ally, as I recall - to take some of them, but the Germans hemmed and hawed. Why? Because of insistent Chinese demands that the Muslims not be sent to a third country.

That's the other theme that peeks through the WikiLeaks cables: The emergence of China as a force to be reckoned with in global affairs. The Chinese haven't quite made it to superpower status, but they appear to be on their way.

Somebody tell them to be careful what they wish for.

Eugene Robinson will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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