Honey, I Shrank the Superpower

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.

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14 Responses to Honey, I Shrank the Superpower

  1. Shlomo says:

    You might be pushing it. I could see someone writing the exact same article in the early 1970’s, as the U.S. was mired in the Vietnam quagmire. That turned out all right for the U.S.

    We just need to figure out that we’re not going to recolonize various countries, and we’ll be fine.

    Well, almost fine. The fact is, this country has never recovered from 9/11, and it shows in Hillary’s and McCain’s campaign rhetoric. The long-term threat to America is not that China’s developing (we can go faster) and not that people realize we’re not militarily invincible (we’re still by far on top).

    I think the biggest threat is that we’re like Israel in 1970. A “short-term”, “enlightened” occupation until the “situation” “stabilizes”? A political discourse derived from victimhood, instead of based on our society’s future? (Our first woman head of state?)

    Watch. Just as the Yom Kippur war made it dead-certain Israel would not withdraw from the Palestinian Territories soon, we’ll see the same thing for Iraq. Something will happen with Iran. Or, something will happen in Pakistan. Or, there’ll be another terrorist attack. All it takes is one disaster, and no one will even think about withdrawing.

    Unless Obama wins. Obama sees what’s going on. That is what “hope” means. No more victimhood.

  2. khaled says:


    I like reading your insightful articles and am glad you have your blog as a forum for discussion.

    There are fundamental questions regarding the presumptions of 9-11 and where the responsibility lies. Being from the ME originally and being a US citizen, I have no doubt that the attacks of 9-11 is something that this country still has not truly recovered from. Its also the case that for “full recovery” the “facts” around 9-11 have to be fully, independently investigated. The reality is that the “4 hijackings” and the collapsed “twin” towers (the third, WTC7, is never mentioned) are premises that will eventually be discarded given enough time.

    I’m new here and don’t know your position but ask that, if you have not already, please look into the most basic things like the non-existent downed plane in PA, or the non-existent Boeing that hit the Pentagon, or WTC7’s collapse. Such fundamental investigations by yourself and others will lead you to have far more questions than answers.

    There will be no movement forward towards ending this conflict till these issues are addressed, more valid culpability is assigned and the criminals responsible for 9-11 are brought to justice. I don’t care who they are so long as they are the truly responsible ones.

    We must begin from the beginning and not base things on false presumptions given the accumulating evidence that has come to light thus far.


  3. morris108 says:

    Unstopable decline:
    The risk of war without end, seems a real possibility, with threats of climate change creating rising food prices, a fiat financial system in gluttonous disarray, and people like the previous authour looking for justice, and on and on.
    The power mongers when faced with civil unrest or more war are going to choose the latter.
    We are facing an abyss, and the internet is thwarting the old games. Is it nieve to say, live and let live? Hegomony is destroying each and every soul, the victor (& there isnt one) and the oppressed.
    It is goin to take an Outspoken Pope or Chief Rabbi to change things, not so much because the masses listen to them, but because I suspect they are the real string pullers.
    What is wrong in saying islam has some qualities? or if Islam spread through the west. The bulk of us are secular, but we are not being told of anything like the real reasons for this militarism. Tony’s article rightly suggests we are headed for a decline no matter who is president. We need a Gorbachov, and as for the previous authours quest for justice, there is not one iota of a chance.
    The future is now about losing a war in the middle east, war is all we have based ourselves on.
    We are now ruled by fanatics!

  4. Joe Noory says:

    Khaled, also being an American, a Lebanese immigrant, and a veteran, I have to ask you where you think this assumtion about the psyche of 302 million people is founded in?

    All you need to do is look for a moment on virtually every political opinion from Europe to find the source of the intangible assumtions people make aout the American population, and that they always seem to operate in onse direction: America, in its’ action only makes mistakes. If they aren’t mistakes, then they’re executed incorrectly, etc.

    Europe, on the other hand, in their inaction and symbolic action, are always right, but always presenting their internal contradiction in a fashion that is to make us believe that they have made a sacrifice for others, or that the assumtoion of the general attitude and sentiment of a population is an adequate reason to believe they love peace, flowers, puppies, and babies.

    It’s a horrendous lie. They let people die in droves in the former Yugoslavia over their inability to do something about morally repugnant hostilities that they were wringing their hands over at the same time. It was a rationalization to not act, and it cost a great many lives – because they were trying to deconstruct the meaning of the state religion and political forces behind the parties, and missing the simple fact that they were killing each other.

    As a whole, they are the last people on earth who can criticise the geopolitics of peace and war.

  5. Khaled says:


    I was not meaning the psychology of Americans — more so the recovery towards the truth of the events related to that day. Its a scandal of historic proportions how there was – on whatever level – government involvement.

    I was curious about Tony’s take given his experience.

    You are correct in that Europe is on no moral high ground.

    I do find it curious as to why with respect to this blog entry it has received so little attention in the comments compared to other entrys and given that it is no small subject.

    It makes me wonder.

    Take care

  6. Spyguy says:

    Shlomo is dead wrong when he says … “The long-term threat to America is not that China’s developing (we can go faster) …”

    No we can’t. The US has destroyed virtually all of its manufacturing capability and most of its engineering due to extremely short sighted decisions made by US business “leaders” and the laize fair government. While each US business decision taken in a narrow view of the next quarter’s numbers looks OK, when nearly every business makes the same decision to become a marketing company for stuff designed and built in China, then there is very little left of the US capability. Since the market is supposed to be much more efficient than the government (in real life it isn’t), no corrective action has taken place and it is now too late to make a correction. Right now Chinese engineers are equal to or better than most US engineers (if you can find any working in the US that aren’t Chinese of Indian).

    Due to globalization and the Internet’s ability to provide the same knowledge to the whole world very rapidly, the US is not in the same situation as during the Vietnam era. The US has wasted and given away every advantage it had back then.

    Basically the US has shot itself very accurately in both feet and has no room to recover. It is in decline militarily and economically. back up and look at the forest with different eyes.

  7. Pingback: Chéri, j’ai rétréci la superpuissance « ReOpen911’s Weblog

  8. Pingback: Why We Worry » Blog Archive » Terrorism is distracting America

  9. spleen says:

    spyguy –

    it’s easy to fall into that trap, assuming the us has given up and sold out on manufacturing.

    The fact is though that a world market has opened up, and we’re losing out in that market.

    Like it or not, nobody is “giving” jobs away. They are, in true capitalist style, going to the lowest bidder.

    It’s easy to point fingers at those who recognize this and accuse them of giving in, but this is a tidal wave that’s going to hit us one way or another.

    Our country can’t exist alone. If we don’t jump into the world economy now with china, india, and others, we will be left out of that market completely. Sure it’ll drag us down while it drags them up – but the only hope we have is that we all end up ok, somewhere in the middle.

    It is a problem that will only be fixed by being better at what you do. THAT philosphy is a commodity that has been exported that is hurting us more. People here don’t expect to work too hard to get what they want.

    The unseen aspect of all of this is the motivation of american companies to automate – driving the computer and robotics industries to new heights.

    If we’d only stop importing slave labor from mexico as a patch to the competition problem, these fields would truly explode in this country like a new industrial revolution.

    So in an odd way, if you fear china, close our mexican border.

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