- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2011

America is about to suffer a painful bout of convergence. On the international scene, the United States is loudly demanding the departure of long-entrenched dictators and pleading for Democratic reforms.

Here at home, state and federal governments ar near the fiscal breaking point, and labor unionites protest on the street.

The two events are related, and not in a good way. The United States wants to wield real swat in foreign affairs, but it lacks the wherewithal to put much heft behind its words. At some point - and we probably already have reached that stage - the dictators and their rebels will notice that America is all talk and no action.

The result could be emerging democracies around the globe that don’t cotton to U.S. influence. America, it well may turn out, can’t be a superpower on the cheap.

The proof of this decline has been evident for years. The United States drained its resources to little effect in Iraq. The same is largely true in the $100 billion-a-year war the U.S. is leading in Afghanistan.

At that rate of expenditure, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was perfectly correct to say aloud that a U.S. president would have to have his head examined if he chose to fight another all-out war in Asia, Africa or the Middle East. America has neither the political will nor the discretionary funds to attack anyone on a grand scale anymore.

That fact has become crystal-clear in capital cities all over the country. Madison, Wis. - ground zero in the latest statewide budget dispute - is one of dozens of capitals that will be twisted into union-versus-politician contortions in the coming months.

But the granddaddy of budget deficits is not at the state level - it’s in the nation’s capital. There, no one has any idea how the red ink can be stanched.

Congress is likely to allow the federal government to continue to operate for a few more weeks, thanks to a very clever maneuver by House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. In exchange for the GOP’s promise to extend operations at least temporarily, Mr. Boehner has opened the way for Senate Democrats to do nothing more controversial than enact the budget cuts President Obama requested in his latest budget proposal.

Whew! That oughta work.

Beyond that, when Congress faces the politically trickier question of how to find enough votes to raise the federal borrowing limit, it will not have such an easy course to follow. Instead, real savings will have to be found somewhere, and they will have to be to the liking of both liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans.

Mr. Boehner will have to be more than clever to thread that needle.

But even if he does, the fundamental fact remains: America does not have the financial strength it once did - not even close. Therefore, imposing its will won’t be a simple task and may, in fact, no longer be possible.

The United States cannot afford to send troops into Libya unilaterally. Even if it could, the American people would not support the intervention. We have far too many problems at home to venture into ambiguous - and highly ambitious - battles overseas.

Egypt was an exception because the United States still managed to pour nearly $2 billion a year into, essentially, the Egyptian military. President Obama had a credible threat to hang over President Hosni Mubarak. But that level of foreign aid is rare and will become significantly rarer given current budget constraints.

The United States has been forced to work within the confines of the United Nations to muster enough clout even to come close to menacing Libya’s ruler. Even that appears to have failed. The U.S. is much more the victim of international upheaval than the instigator of it. Look no further than the skyrocketing price of oil as proof.

America’s inability to impact foreign events is likely to lead to a spiraling downward from the U.S. point of view. The fewer governments we are able to control, the more chaos will envelop the world. That chaos will lead to higher commodity prices, especially oil, and the U.S. economy will grow even weaker as a result.

The softer our economy becomes, the less our status as a superpower will be able to buy for us.

Our hope is for the United States to use its status as a beacon for democracy to win the heart and minds of insurgents in the Middle East and elsewhere. We can inspire if nothing else. Maybe the rebels won’t notice how flimsy our authority has really become.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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