With his order to effect the execution of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs, 40 miles from Islamabad, without asking permission of the government, Barack Obama made a bold and courageous decision.
Its success, and the accolades he has received, have given him a credibility as commander in chief that he never had before.
The law professor, it turns out, is a gunslinger.
Should the president now decide on a major withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July, or side with his generals and make a token pullout, either way, the country will accept his decision.
Yet, as one looks to the Maghreb and Middle East, to the Gulf and Pakistan, events of this historic year point to an inexorable retreat of American power and the American presence.
Consider Pakistan. Today, that nation is red-faced that its military and intelligence services lied or did not know Osama was living in a mansion a mile from their West Point. And Pakistan is humiliated that U.S. commandos flew in by chopper at night, killed Osama in his compound, and made off with his body, computers and cell phones.
Relations are close to the breaking point. Mobs are burning American flags. Angry congressmen are talking of cutting off aid to Pakistan for disloyalty and duplicity in hiding bin Laden. Pakistanis are enraged Americans would trample on their sovereignty like that.
Even before Sunday's killing of Osama, Pakistan's prime minister had reportedly told Hamid Karzai in Kabul to let the Americans leave on schedule in 2014, and let Pakistan and China help him cut his deal with the Taliban. In the long run, this is likely to happen.
U.S. and NATO forces leave, the Taliban returns, and Pakistan moves into the orbit of China, which has far more cash—$3 trillion in foreign currency reserves—and more of a long-term interest in South Asia than a busted United States on the far side of the world.
The "Great Game" will go on in Afghanistan, but without Western players—only Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India.
In the other two critical Islamic nations in the region, Turkey and Egypt, we see a similar unraveling of ties to Washington.
Turkey has been going its own way since she refused George W. Bush permission to use Turkish bases to invade Iraq.
Ankara has become less secular and more Islamic, and begun to highlight her identity as a Middle Eastern nation. She has repaired relations with neighbors America regards as rogue states: Iran and Syria. And she has become the champion of the Gaza Palestinians.
Since Hosni Mubarak's fall, Egypt has pursued a similar course. Cairo has allowed Iranian warships to transit Suez and is about to re-establish ties to Tehran. She has brokered an agreement uniting Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and is about to reopen the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Israeli anger and American alarm are politely ignored.
Though their population, like Pakistan's, is anti-American, neither Turkey nor Egypt is openly hostile. Yet both pursue policies that clash with U.S. policy. And this new distance from Washington is being met with the approval of Turks and Egyptians. For the one thing all of the uprisings of the Arab Spring have had in common is a desire of these peoples to be rid of American hegemony.
Indeed, taking inventory after four months of Arab revolts, it is difficult not to declare America a net loser.
Our ally of 30 years, Mubarak, was overthrown. The new government is moving away from us. Our ally in Tunisia was ousted.
Our unpopular and ruthless ally in Yemen is still fighting for survival. The brutality shown by our friend, Bahrain's King Khalifa, against peaceful Shiite demonstrators probably means eventual loss of basing rights for the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
We are to begin pulling troops out of Afghanistan this summer and complete the withdrawal in 2014. We are down from 170,000 troops in Iraq to 50,000. All are to be gone by year's end.
Americans have had their fill of nation-building. We cannot afford any more decade-long wars where the benefits to the American people have to be endlessly explained.
Why is America's footprint shrinking in that part of the world?
First, Americans have never been less popular there, and one demand of every revolution is for a new government, independent of the United States, that will defend the national sovereignty.
Second, we are broke. We can no longer afford the bases. We can no longer afford the wars. We can no longer afford the aid.
Third, the true vital interest of the United States in this part of the world is that these Islamic countries not become base camps of terror, especially nuclear terror, targeted against the United States.
That end is surely better served by packing and departing than by staying and fighting.
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