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US global clout eroded by shutdown

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

America's global standing among both allies and foes is being seriously undermined by the US government shutdown which forced President Barack Obama to cancel a key Asia tour, analysts said Friday.

Some even warned that with no sign of a swift resolution, the political dysfunction in the corridors of the world's largest superpower poses a major threat to national security.

In a rare foray into US politics, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf blasted what she called a "damaging" shutdown that "really negatively impacts our standing abroad."

Reading damning headlines about the US predicament from Mexican, Indian, Spanish and Taiwanese newspapers, she said: "For a Congress that talks a lot about American exceptionalism, they're sending the exact opposite message all around the world right now."

Nations where America's constant drive to push values like democracy, free speech and transparent government is an anathema are likely viewing the self-imposed US paralysis with some glee.

For some, such as China, it's a heaven-sent opportunity to portray an image of stability and reliability far removed from the chaotic signals coming from Washington.

"This sends a message to allies that they're somewhat on their own," said Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, writing on the think tank's website.

"It certainly dilutes any appeal of the American political model, and it raises anew questions of American predictability and reliability, which are qualities that are vital to an effective great power."

Obama has scrapped trips to two key Asian summits heralded as boosting his administration's much-vaunted Asia pivot, blaming the government shutdown.

But analysts argued the reasons for the cancellation don't much matter to the world at large.

"China does not care, and frankly neither do US allies, strategic partners and close friends, what the details are, but the bottom line is that as Asia organizes itself, the president of the United States is not able to attend the annual board meeting," said Ernest Bower from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The message has been sent."

There was also concern about the lost opportunity for vital face-to-face talks at the highest levels.

With burning issues to tackle such as the conflict in Syria and Iran's nuclear program, Moscow voiced disappointment that Obama would not meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an Asia Pacific summit in Bali, Indonesia.

"There is a great need in our bilateral relations for a dialogue at the highest level," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Secretary of State John Kerry will step in for Obama, but his short tenure has been more associated with troubles in the Middle East, not Asia, and the limelight will now likely fall on Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi now "has the floor to himself and it makes the US as a country, its political system and democracy, look weak," said Ian Storey of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian studies.

'It's really tough right now'

The State Department admits it has been caught in a bind.

US ambassadors and diplomats are engaged in a damage limitation exercise, seeking to shore up the message that America is committed to its partners.

"But quite frankly, it's really tough right now," Harf admitted.

Already departmental travel is being cut back, and one of the first victims was the second round of talks on a key EU-US free trade treaty.

Next week's negotiations due to take place in Brussels have been cancelled as the US could not send a delegation, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht revealed Friday.

The shutdown is also impacting some vital US programs abroad, including funds for key regional partners and allies Israel and Egypt.

There is no money allocated yet either to continue funding a peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt and Israel despite growing unrest there.

And the Treasury has been forced to cut its 175 staff who monitor violations of sanctions imposed on Iran to just 11.

Harf said the closure of the office of Foreign Asset Control was "unhelpful, a contradictory message" at a time when Washington hopes sanctions and diplomacy "can push Iran to address the world's concerns about its nuclear program."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131004/us-global-clout-eroded-shutdown-0