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Suddenly, there's a new fad in discussing international affairs today, and it may be summarized as the "America is dead" school. Echoing Iran, Western - including US - analysts are claiming that recent events prove the United States is a pitiful, helpless giant.
What the heck is this based on? The only two pieces of evidence seem to be the fact that the US has been unable to transform Iraq and Afghanistan into stable democracies in a brief span of time. And, one might add at the extreme limit, that it has not ended the Arab-Israeli conflict, defeated the forces of radical Islamism, or stopped Iran from developing nuclear weapons either.
This is going to be a very short-lived myth, based on an extremely near-sighted view of the international situation. Regarding Iraq, the Baker-Hamilton report - which basically proposes that America throw itself on the mercy of its worst adversaries to save itself - is already the thing that is dead. The Bush administration has already clearly rejected the report and is working on its own plan, to be issued in January.
THE ADMINISTRATION'S rhetoric has also changed quite noticeably. Instead of speaking of "victory" in Iraq, it talks of "success," which is explicitly defined as a regime in Iraq which can defend and sustain itself while being an ally in the war against terror. This is no petty verbal shift. It is a long-needed lowering of goals and expectations.
No longer will the US seek a perfect Iraq, but rather a realistic scenario of a country which can fight its own civil war. The US will help, but cannot deliver, victory in Baghdad. The style and methods used to carry on the battle will be Iraqi, not American.
And this fits into a wider picture. Even at the wildest extremes of mainstream unilateralism no one in US policymaking circles accepted the notion that America could do everything itself.
As far as the Middle East is concerned, other countries could largely be divided into three categories: those determined to sabotage US efforts (notably Iran and Syria, along with their clients); those unwilling to help at all (basically the rest of the Arab world), and those ready to play at cooperating without actually doing much (most of Europe).
Then, when problems aren't solved, all three groups can conveniently blame the US. And if the US does not deliver pain-free, rapid solutions against all these odds, they can proclaim that America has failed. I am not referring here mainly, or purely, to the invasion of Iraq, which other countries had every right to think a mistake.
STILL, IT should never be forgotten that the perceived failure of will at pursuing sanctions led US policymakers - mistakenly or otherwise - to conclude that an attack was the only solution. Nor is it fitting for those who have so consistently criticized US efforts, failed to help, and often tried to subvert those efforts to speak of an American failure of will simply because Americans are persuaded by their arguments.
In addition, what should also not be missed here is the fact that the US can sustain governments in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely. It is not abandoning that effort, it is just switching to another, more reasonable, strategy. Willingness to reevaluate mistakes is a sign of strength; it was the rigidity previously demonstrated by President George W. Bush before accepting the real situation in Iraq that was the weakness.
But, after all, the same charge could be brought against European countries which demanded the US pursue the diplomatic route in combating Iran's nuclear weapons campaign and now will not recognize the failure of their strategy. The same applies to those who have put forward a peace-process-above-all strategy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and refuse to see that it failed completely because the Palestinian leadership (which is far worse today than in 2000) rejected peace.
ANYONE underestimating continued US primacy is going to be making a big mistake. Of course there are limits to that power, first and foremost the ability to transform the political culture of other countries. Moreover, terrorism as a strategy tries to wear down a stronger power through attrition, persistence, and propaganda. In essence, the perpetrators show their willingness to destroy everything in order to blackmail their adversary. This is what we have seen among the Palestinians, with al-Qaida, and in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
In none of these cases, however, has this approach brought victory to the insurgents, only the ability to sustain bloodshed and crisis. If the US has not achieved victory, it is also far from being defeated and still holds the upper hand. If US policymakers realize that putting all their resources in the Iraq basket limits the ability to employ them elsewhere, that is a necessary preface to sustaining that ability to apply power.
Still another point that should not be neglected is that past predictions of American decline rested largely on the belief that one or more substitutes would be found. A very fine speculative fiction writer brought out a novel around 1990 about the Soviet Union emerging as victor in the Cold War. Needless to say, sales suffered. Japan, one candidate, has undergone a severe economic downturn; a united Europe, another, has stalled in its forward progress. The last of the potential candidates is still at an early stage of development and it remains to be seen if there will ever be an Age of China in humanity's future.
Prospects for the US, then, remain quite good on the international scene. If you believe that Bush has done a dreadful job, all the more reason to attribute setbacks temporarily to him and assume that his successor will return the US to its position of primacy and leadership.
If, however, anything brings about the decline of America, it will be the kind of policies of appeasement and deliberate weakness advocated by so many of its critics and false friends.