The weaknesses of nations and their leaders can be revealed intentionally and unintentionally. Presidents Obama and Clinton were famous for their apology tours, which were clear signs of weakness.
Unintentional displays of national weakness are more important and far more interesting. Leaders of nations, whether democratic or despotic, frequently make speeches full of bravado and claims to technocratic expertise to a disbelieving public. They may take actions that, while wise or even essential, have to be seen as confessions of failure.
Three revealing speeches and actions — by Chinese President Xi Jinping, by Iranian President Rouhani and by the Trump administration in announcing a “deal” with the Taliban — are prime examples of conduct that betrays weakness.
The coronavirus epidemic has spread from its origins in the Chinese city of Wuhan to many population centers around China and the world. Outrage over the death of Dr. Li Wenliang — the Wuhan physician whose online warnings about the spread of the disease were shut down by the government — has spread like wildfire among China’s population.
Mr. Xi is claiming credit for his government’s actions in containing the disease. In a speech published on Feb. 3, he chastised local government officials for not dealing with the crisis quickly enough.
According to Mr. Xi, “I issued demands during a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on January 7 for work to contain the outbreak.” He claims to have instructed his Communist Party subordinates that, “[We must] inform the people of what the party and government is doing and what is our next step forward to strengthen the public’s confidence.”
But the Politburo meets in secret, so his claims are dubious at best. The warnings he demanded weren’t given and China has been far less than forthcoming about the virus’ outbreak, its danger and its spread. China’s totalitarian government has done what totalitarians do: Lock people up until the crisis is over. Major cities have been locked down with residents not allowed out of their high-rise apartments except for one family member allowed out two or three times a week to buy food.
The Chinese see that the physical and economic damage done by the coronavirus has overcome Mr. Xi’s government’s actions by a large margin. The severe damage the Chinese economy is suffering — and will continue to suffer — is already having global effects. Companies such as Apple and Volkswagen are projecting reduced production and revenues. Though Mr. Xi’s statements were intended to impress the Chinese people, they will see his claims to be what they are — as a confession of weakness.
Iran is suffering a different kind of epidemic: A rapidly-failing economy brought about by U.S. sanctions. A little over two weeks ago, Mr. Rouhani said that Iran will not negotiate with the United States until it rejoins the 2015 nuclear weapons deal negotiated by Mr. Obama and relieves Iran of the sanctions imposed by President Trump. Braying like a sick mule, he said that the Iranian economy is still “thriving” in the face of the “maximum pressure” campaign Mr. Trump is engineering against it.
The Iranian people have no faith in the ayatollahs. They see their economy in desperate trouble and — more and more – they protest and riot against the ayatollahs’ regime. That regime still has its foot on the neck of the Iranian people many, if not most, of whom want to bring it to an end.
Mr. Rouhani’s false bravado was intended for home consumption. He can’t believe that Mr. Trump is going to rejoin the dangerous nuclear deal and relieve Iran of all sanctions. Mr. Rouhani is playing for time while confessing weakness, hoping that Mr. Trump is defeated in November and replaced by one of the fungible Democrats.
Evidence of weakness isn’t only produced in speeches. Our weakness in Afghanistan has, for years, been evident to anyone who has paid attention. The latest proof of it was the Feb. 17 announcement of a preliminary agreement with the Taliban. It reportedly will begin with a “reduction in violence” on Feb. 22 and continue for a week with a planned cease-fire to begin afterward. Peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Kabul government are supposed to begin at that point.
The theory is that a broader deal can be reached based on the withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops and Taliban promises to not allow Afghanistan to return to its pre-9/11 status as a safe haven for terrorists to mount attacks against the West.
The fact that we could not require a cease-fire as the predicate to negotiations is a redundant proof of our weakness. The Taliban control or contest most of the country. They have always refused to negotiate with the Kabul government which they believe — correctly — cannot last longer than it will take for our troops to withdraw.
The Taliban know that whatever promises they make they will be able to violate without consequence. Once we’re gone from Afghanistan it would take another 9/11 (or worse) for us to return.
As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was fond of saying, weakness is provocative. What the weaknesses of Mr. Xi’s and Mr. Rouhani’s regimes will provoke will accumulate and should lead to their eventual downfall. Our weakness in Afghanistan will, sooner or later, re-create it as a safe haven for terrorism.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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