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Published: Wednesday, 1/2/2013

Can the U.S. lead?

How the rest of the world views the United States is the second question Americans should ask themselves as 2013 begins. The first question is what we can do about the condition our country is in.

The close interrelationship of America and other nations in political, economic, and strategic terms is a vital matter. The rest of the world does still look to America for potential leadership.

At the same time, there is considerable skepticism around the world today about the quality of America’s leadership and even the nature of its people. This absence of faith in collective U.S. wisdom is based on Washington’s performance in the face of the challenges it is confronting without notable success.

On the political front, a nation that does not hesitate to prescribe its formula for governance — democracy — to the rest of the world is tied in knots. It urges other nations to choose its leaders in free and fair elections.

But its own democratic process is marred by the undemocratic Electoral College and by efforts to hobble citizens’ exercise of the franchise through gerrymandering and by backward-looking measures in many states that would make it harder to vote.

The result is an undistinguished group of leaders, most of whom think of nothing but their own efforts to hold onto the privileges of office. They are failing to address the country’s problems: fiscal mismanagement, a suicidal approach to weapons control, and a system of political campaign financing that makes it possible for the richest Americans to seek to dominate the electoral process through contributions of anonymous money.

People overseas perceive what Washington is doing, or not doing, in the face of the fiscal and economic crisis that faces the country. If America succumbs to that crisis, other nations that are tightly linked to us are doomed to suffer damage as well, and they know it.

The smart ones have made provisions for American failure. Others, such as poor workers in factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia, will pay dearly for American leaders’ folly.

On the strategic level, it becomes harder to escape the conclusion that the United States destroyed Iraq as a coherent nation when American forces occupied it from 2003 to 2011. No one would dispute that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein, but the country is torn into pieces by conflicts among its Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

In Afghanistan, each of the plans Americans developed to make it a democratic nation with a functioning, modern economy and credible national armed forces has failed. The trick for the United States now has become to get our forces out safely, without leaving Afghans who worked with us to face violent retribution.

Americans’ concern now must be to mend our society and our economy, then engage with the rest of the world as a strong, functioning entity, capable of playing the global role that is expected of us. That can be done, but we aren’t doing it now.

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