The Guardian 1 October, 2008

An empire in decline?

Ramzy Baroud*

Bad decisions made by the Bush administration and economic decline at home might undermine Washington’s world standing much sooner than most analysts predict. However, it would be inaccurate to date the origins of such decline to the arrival of the Bush administration or even the horrific events of September 11 2001.

The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union and the unravelling of the Warsaw Pact, many of whose former members later gravitated towards NATO, empowered a breed of US elite who boasted of the economic viability and moral supremacy of US-style capitalism and democracy.

While the September 11 attacks and a gung-ho president were later to present a convenient opportunity for the reassertion of US global dominance, the plans were laid the moment that the Soviet Union collapsed.

They crystallised in 1997 with the establishment of The Project For The New American Century (PNAC), a think tank that drew together a wide range of neo-conservative policy advisers.

Their aim was "to promote American global leadership (which) is both good for America and good for the world."

PNAC founders William Kristol and Robert Kagan were inspired by the Reaganite policy of "strength and moral clarity."

But their supposedly inspiring model had previously been based on the need to win the cold war, which no longer existed.

Fashioning a replacement enemy was an essential prerequisite to justify the repositioning of US power to claim the spaces left following the end of the post-World War II bipolar world.

But, even in 2000, the PNAC report Rebuilding America’s Defences: Strategies, Forces and Resources For a New Century appeared of little relevance to the real world.

It expressed the "belief that America should seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the pre-eminence of US military forces."

The document would have been consigned to the dustbin of history were it not for the terrorist attacks in 2001, which turned it into a doctrine that defined US foreign policies for nearly a decade.

The US-led wars and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq were designed to strengthen Washington’s hand in protecting its interests. Afghanistan’s strategic importance lies in warding off the regional growth of the rising powers of Asia. Aside from its military and strategic value, it was also hoped that it would become a major energy supply route.

Iraq was designated to provide the base for a permanent US military presence in the Middle East to guard Washington’s oil interests and to ensure Israeli regional supremacy over its weaker but rebellious Arab foes.

The plan worked well for a few weeks following Bush’s declaration of "mission accomplished" in Iraq. Since then, the US has learnt that managing world affairs through military force is a recipe for disaster.

Defeated and humiliated, Iraqis fought back, creating a nightmare never-ending scenario for the US. The original US plan to exploit the country’s fractious ethnic and religious groupings also backfired, as shifting alliances made it impossible for the US to single out a permanent enemy or rely on a long-term ally.

In Afghanistan, the picture is even bleaker for the invaders. The country’s unforgiving geography, the corruption of US local allies and the US-led coalition’s brutal response to a resurgent Taliban have equally rendered Afghanistan a lost cause in military terms.

But the trigger-happy mentality that has governed US foreign policy during the Bush years is no longer dominant. It is being replaced by a more dialogue-based approach to foreign policy, as championed by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

This change of tone, however, is largely pragmatic. According to a survey conducted jointly by Foreign Policy magazine and the Centre for a New American Security in February, 88 percent of present and former US military officers believed that the demands of the Iraq war alone had "stretched the US military dangerously thin".

Although not "broken", 80 percent believed that it was "unreasonable to expect the US military to wage another major war successfully at present", as reported by CNN.

These results reflect similar assessments by a string of top US military commanders, most of whose careers ended in early retirement.

US military limitations in the Middle East have also resulted in a weakening of Washington’s political might and standing globally. Its regional allies have suffered one blow after another — Israel in Lebanon, Georgia in South Ossetia and US allies in Venezuela and other south American countries.

It was only a matter of time before a challenger to US global hegemony tested Washington’s resolve in this new context.

While growing US involvement in Eurasia and its missile defence shield were considered part and parcel of the neo-cons’ plan for "rebuilding America’s defences", Russia considered them a threat to national security.

The Georgian invasion of South Ossetia represented a golden opportunity for Moscow to send an unmistakable message to Washington. By crushing the US and Israeli-trained Georgian army, Russia declared itself a challenger to a period of previously unbridled US global dominance that had lasted nearly two decades.

Countries such as Iran and Syria are quickly warming to Russia, as the latter seeks to rebuild its own alliances and defences.

The future direction of the US-Russia confrontation is yet to be determined.

What is clear however, is that the next US president will find himself facing a drastically changed world order, one that is defined by military pandemonium, national and global economic declines and the rise of new powers, all vying to fill an increasingly widening, chaotic power vacuum. And all courtesy of the mistakes of the Bush administration and its allies.

*Ramzy Baroud is an author and editor of His latest book The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle is out now on Pluto Press.

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