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Among the many risks President Bush is taking in his relentless drive against Saddam Hussein is what theorists call "imperial overreach": the specter of draining American global power suddenly and irrevocably. A war that goes badly -- with high casualties, spiking oil prices, Arab and Muslim unrest, and so on -- would invite the view that Bush had miscalculated and that the shine was off the American apple.
But now we're seeing signs of this possible decline before the expected assault on Baghdad. The president may have tacitly acknowledged this as well as he backs away from confrontation, not in Iraq but in North Korea.
Keep in mind that the notion that America is losing its hegemonic status has come before, most famously in Yale historian Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" (1989). The vision of the United States weakening perilously seemed far from reality in the go-go-'90s, and today's imbroglios may be sending another false signal of decline. But there is some striking evidence that Bush's swagger is really a totter.
North Korea provides the most obvious evidence. Their misbehavior is far more egregious than Iraq's. They are in cahoots with the likes of Pakistan and others in a proliferation club that could pose very genuine dangers all over the world. They probably do not have nuclear weapons but are not far away, and are much closer than Saddam is. The internal repression and deprivation are unspeakable. If ever there were a case for "liberation" this would be it. But the Bushies are talking instead of shooting. Why?
One obvious reason is that the United States does not want to conduct two major wars at once, though capability is not the issue. More significantly, our longtime ally, South Korea, is in effect telling us that we must deal or leave. Japan is quietly backing them up. China and Russia -- two of our great-power rivals of the coming decades -- are involved and will take a leading role if we were to remain belligerent. If Bush did not pursue a negotiating strategy, our friends and allies would squeeze us out of the "American lake". Unmistakably, this is a case of declining influence.
Of course, there are other reasons to talk our way out of the Korean mess and keep the tank engines warm for the run to Baghdad. Muslims may wonder at the double standard. Perry Anderson, writing in New Left Review, explains that the Middle East is "a region in which -- unlike Europe, Russia, China, Japan, or Latin America -- there are virtually no regimes with a credible base to offer effective transmission points for American cultural or economy hegemony."
Establishing a platform for American-led globalization in the center of the oil-producing world is a rather inviting project. It explains the White House rhetoric about establishing a "model" for Arab democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq. (No such new model is required for East Asia.) So, rightly, Bush says it's not "about" oil or finishing the job for Daddy Bush. It's about finishing the job for Coke and Calvin Klein and MTV and Disneyland in the desert.
This is the imperium that American elites deny, but is well understood everywhere else. That it will be a very tricky feat in a country that is 55 percent Shi'ite and teeming with blood feuds is putting it mildly. If the project fails, either because of military setbacks or post-Saddam chaos, then the American brand will be tarnished forever. Recruits for al Qaeda and other dissident movements, whether violent or merely bumptious, will surely rise in the coming decade, and many will even contend for political power in Muslim countries, regardless of the outcome in Iraq. How serious such challenges will be is very difficult to predict, because they will become increasingly isolated, American hegemony or not.
The more important counter to Washington's designs, however, is not the Arab street or intemperate mullahs, but our allies. The drive to take over Iraq is most upsetting to the Europeans, who are emerging, after a long post-communist slumber, as our main global rivals for economic and political leadership.
And Europe, apart from Tony Blair, is none too happy about Bush's plans in the Persian Gulf. Among a number of other strategic issues, this is driving a permanent wedge between the longtime allies, and here is the highest cost for the United States. An invigorated Europe (if it can remain united as it expands toward Russia) will provide the most attractive model for development (one of quasi-socialist democracy), has the strongest ties to its old colonial dominions of the third world, and will soon surpass the United States in all the measures of strength except the military.
At the same time, they are attempting to contain the military power of the United States through the single mechanism most despised by the American right wing: the United Nations. As it stands now, in mid-January, a Swedish bureaucrat in a UN agency is foiling the plans of the Bush warriors. Hans Blix, who heads the inspections in Iraq, has rightly told the world that his inspectors need more time, and that the inspections themselves are an element of containment in Iraq (The discovery of a dozen empty chemical warhead shells on January 16 is evidence that the inspections can work if given time.)
France and Germany are insisting that another Security Council resolution is required before a war can commence. Russia is showing signs of similar insistence. Without Blair, Bush's ability to wage war in Iraq would be wholly stymied by the dense political web that is Europe. If Bush goes ahead anyway, an irreparable breach will do in the Atlantic alliance, and American power -- which has dominated Western Europe for 60 years -- will be the poorer. If he is hemmed in by the U.N. and Europe, it is, as with the Koreas, another acknowledgment of America stumbling on the downward slope.
Of course, Europe could bow and war could proceed. But even if a war in Iraq goes well militarily, Bush may have doomed the American imperium. At the apparent height of U.S. economic, political, and military power, the hegemon will be gradually but surely brought down, and new powers -- Europe, and eventually China, Russia, and India -- will begin to rise irrevocably to fill its place.
John Tirman is program director at the Social Science Research Council, Washington, DC.