Thinking about government

These are days that cause me to ponder the nature of government.
On the one hand, we see the fragility of strong regimes on our borders and not so far away. What may have begun with the rejection of a small business license in Tunisia has spread to where the mighty Mubarak may be put on trial for his life; the four decades long reign of the Asad family is facing anti-government marches that grow in magnitude from one Friday''s day of prayer and protest to the next, and Libya is mired in a civil war with international involvement.
The current Asad is responding the way his father did in the city of Hama 30 years ago. Then the army killed somewhere between one and forty thousand civilians, and squashed an uprising. Estimates of current deaths are less than one thousand but approaching that number. The difference is cell phone videos, facebook and other media that make it impossible to keep the uprising from spreading within Syria and attracting the attention of outsiders.
On the other side of the government spectrum, President Barack Obama is celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden. The widespread congratulations pouring toward Washington from Israel, Europe, the West Bank, and other Muslim countries suggest that the American democracy is strong enough to qualify as world leader. Its hasty move into Libya also shows, more dramatically than in the past that the separation of powers is not up to challenges as perceived by the Commander-in-Chief.
American security forces and intelligence operatives succeeded in finding the hiding place of the man widely viewed as responsible for 9-11, and inspiring attacks in the London underground, a Madrid train station, a coffee house in Morocco, and several Indonesian sites visited by westerners.
One can argue about the nature of Al-Qaida, the personal responsibility of bin Laden, and whether his death will have any impact on close colleagues or the wider movements of Islamic extremism. In the decade from 9-11 while bin Laden evaded the long arms of the United States, Al-Qaida and its cousins morphed into numerous groups that might be linked by overlapping theology, ideology, or something as vague as anti-Westernism, but not by organizational ties of leadership and control. The delayed accomplishment qualifies as appropriate revenge, but Islamic terror is substantially larger than bin Laden and those who looked to him for leadership.
We are seeing Washington''s reach as far as anything in history toward a global empire. Bringing American justice to Pakistan while fighting in Afghanistan, responsible for replacing the government in Iraq, and joining a civil war in Libya exceeds in the breadth and magnitude of force controlled by the Soviet Union, Great Britain, or Rome in their days. Compared to the actions taken by the United States, the ostensible world government of the United Nations evokes the image of comic opera, or a treasure of patronage for governments that keep themselves favored by the world''s majority.
There is a problem of "symbol" and "substance" in judging American power. The country''s forces are spread thin, and its government debt is at least as impressive as its military. Most of the world is not subject to American rule. The United States government functions at home better than the world average, but its performance on the basic service of health delivery keeps it in the second tier, or even lower.
Two items in recent news touch on the nature of America''s power. They lead me to ask how much of the current applause for the latest American achievement is the chorus of sycophants, flatterers, and hypocrites, and how much reflects those who accept American leadership?
One such item is the warning heard from Washington when Israel''s Finance Minister said that he was considering stopping the flow of tax receipts collected by Israel at its ports for the Palestine Authority, on account of the West Bank''s reconciliation with the Hamas regime of Gaza. The Israeli said that he did not want to finance the purchase of rockets that would be sent against Israeli civilians. An American official indicated that the halting of financial transfers would be undesirable.
Will this be like President Obama''s demand that Israel stop construction in Jewish settlements, including neighborhoods of Jerusalem? That produced a temporary freeze and then a thaw, and overall perhaps more animosity than compliance.
The second item comes out of Gaza.
While the Obama administration may be monitoring Israeli sanctions against Hamas, Hamas is not repaying the favor. Its senior official in Gaza said, "We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior. We ask God to offer him mercy with the true believers and the martyrs."
My pondering is anything but focused or polished. There are governments thought to be strong that wither away in a few weeks, or slaughter their citizens in what may be prior to chaos, the re-imposition of cruelty, or something else impossible to specify at this point. In contrast, the United States has no competitor for world leadership. Yet one can worry about the substance of its role, both with respect to the sincerity of endorsements uttered by some of the less powerful, and the damnation expressed by others.