The Times is a new daily news venture edited by Ray Hartley, who consistently provides some of the best commentary on where South Africa is headed. They asked me to do a three-part series on the changing global power balance and its implications. This is part one, which appeared last Monday.
In a snide reference to Bill Clinton’s 1992 promise to “build a bridge into the 21st century,” Barack Obama recently quipped that what Hillary Clinton really offers is a bridge back into the 20th century. Yet, a bridge back into the last century may be what all the major candidates are offering when they promise to restore the American leadership and primacy. The Republicans promise to restore American power by staying the course in Iraq, threatening Iran, and staring down “radical Islamic terrorism,” which John McCain calls “the transcendent issue of the 21st century.” The Democrats envisage turning the clock back eight years, restoring post-Cold War American primacy simply by adopting a more sober and consensus-based style. The problem, of course, is that while Bush’s
reckless forays into the Middle East have accelerated the decline of America’s strategic influence, there’s little reason to believe that this decline can be reversed either by more of the same, or by a less abrasive tenant in the Oval Office.
The gangster movie Miller’s Crossing offered a profound mediation on the nature of power in one petty thug’s warning to his boss: “You only run this town because people think you run this town.” Bush’s catastrophic mistakes have inadvertently revealed the limits of U.S. power, making it abundantly clear to both friend
and foe that Washington is no longer in charge.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Middle East, where most of the Bush Administration’s exertions have been focused. The U.S. remains mired in Iraq for the foreseeable future, its recent troop surge — utilizing the maximum combat capability currently available to its military – achieving tactical gains but failing to resolve the
political conflict that drives the violence there. Other designated bad guys such as Syria, and particularly Iran, have actually grown in strength and influence as a result of an Iraq invasion designed to intimidate them into surrender. Tehran has cocked a snoot at
U.S.-led efforts to pressure it over its nuclear program, buoyed both by America’s need for Iranian goodwill in Iraq and also the ascendancy of non-Western players, particularly China and Russia, as economic and geopolitical partners.
Bush has failed to exorcise Hizballah and Syrian influence from Lebanon, and his efforts to marginalize Hamas in Palestinian politics have also clearly floundered.
These and other failures have demonstrated even to longtime U.S. allies in the region such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that Washington currently has neither the muscle nor the vision to secure their common interests, prompting both to rebuff U.S. policies they deem
dysfunctional, such as the efforts to isolate Iran and Hamas.
The picture is no more encouraging on other fronts of Bush’s “war on terror.” Afghanistan — six years after the U.S. scattered the Taliban regime — is a failing state whose main export is opium, and where the Taliban now operates openly in more than half of the
country. The Taliban’s comeback is helped by the sanctuary it enjoys in Pakistan, whose military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has mastered the art of taking the piss out of his Washington, even as it proclaims him a vital ally against terrorism. (Never mind his
political manipulations, Musharraf won’t even allow the Americans to interrogate A.Q. Khan, the scientist who supplied nuclear weapons technology to all and sundry.)
The fading of Pax Americana in the wider Middle East is partly a product of Bush’s over-reach and over-reliance on force and the threat of force. But it is also a symptom of epic, economically-driven shifts — the rise of China and India, Russia’s resurgence and
Europe’s steady expansion, to name a few — that have redefined the global power equation. Viewed in this wider context, McCain’s suggestion that Islamist radicalism is the “transcendent issue of the 21st century” is a reminder of just how obsessively distracted Washington has been by the provocation of 9/11. John Kerry, may have been a poor
presidential candidate, but he was right about terrorism: ”We have to get back to the place … where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” he said on the campaign trail in 2004. Like organized crime, he said, terrorism could not be eliminated, but the challenge was to keep it at levels where “it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.” The “war on terror,” as Kerry seemed to grasp in that much pilloried and quickly retracted statement, had distracted the American political class from reckoning with the impact of profound changes underway in the global order. But even in waging that war on radical Islamist challengers, the relative decline of U.S. power is unmistakable. Working creatively within those limits will be challenge facing the next president.