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Why Pax Americana is failing everybody

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Over the past decade, U.S. intentions have not been realized anywhere America has tried to exert influence


November 25, 2007

David Olive



The epic failure of American foreign policy in recent years should have yielded a new world vision among candidates seeking to replace U.S. President George W. Bush. But it hasn't, and perhaps it won't.


There remains a consensus among both leading Democrats and Republicans that their homeland is in danger; that America is well served by its financial and military support of unreliable and repugnant regimes; and that continued projection of U.S. values and military force is imperative in the protection of America's commercial and security interests worldwide.


Yet it is plainly evident that over the past decade, well before Bush took office, U.S. intentions have not been realized in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Cuba, Haiti, Darfur, Somalia, Myanmar, Russia, France, Canada, China or practically anywhere America has tried to exert influence.


The two notable exceptions are North Korea, which suspended its nuclear-weapons program when the Bush administration finally abandoned sabre rattling for the bilateral talks Pyongyang had sought all along. And Northern Ireland where, in another triumph of old-fashioned diplomacy, then-U.S. president Bill Clinton played a peripheral but useful role in helping broker the Good Friday accords that finally brought an end to the decades-old Troubles.


Thus the familiar U.S. foreign policy of seeking to protect America's interests by controlling world events – with military force, covert insurrections, coercive trade practices, or threat of sanctions – is bankrupt. It was bankrupt before Bush debilitated the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq, and found no takers for his so-called "freedom agenda," articulated in Bush's second inaugural, by which he dedicated America to bringing not stability but democracy to the four corners of the Earth.


That Bush is not alone in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment in failing to grasp that stability – domestic tranquility – is a precondition to freedom, democracy, the rule of law and a market economy indicates that the deep thinkers in Washington have missed Iraq's most important lesson.


A new, self-interested American foreign policy for the 21st-century would embrace a strategy that might be called "constructive isolation." That would mean:


being far more selective about U.S. entanglements abroad, and even then only after a mighty overhaul of America's intelligence agencies, with their unfathomable lack of basic foreign-language skills and understanding of world religions and cultures; acting alone at times but usually with others in boosting goodwill responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises abroad – being "the first with the most,"as America was in rushing essential supplies to victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis; ending the genocide in Darfur by joining others to hamstring the regime in Khartoum; resisting a superpower's temptation to meddle, and embracing the humility of learning from and working with others. The enhanced legitimacy of collective action is a "force multiplier" in confronting the world's bad actors and the challenges threatening the planet, including nuclear proliferation and climate change; and forsaking the soft bigotry of low expectations by which the U.S., with its massive financial and military aid to favoured nations, traps America's wards in a cycle of dependency.


Without the crutch of unqualified American support, Israel, for instance, would have to think harder about the consequences of its settlements policy. The European Union's emerging military prowess, which the U.S. has long discouraged, would relieve America of the burden of coping with emergencies in Europe's backyard, such as civil war in the Balkans. And Japan could be empowered to assume responsibility as a guarantor of stability in the Pacific Rim.


With apologies to Wordsworth, America is too much with us, laying waste its powers.


Its global ubiquity has bred regional resentment toward the U.S.. It too often has yielded unsatisfactory outcomes. And it is an increasingly perilous burden on the American people. The U.S. tab for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is officially placed between $2.4 trillion (U.S.) and $3.5 trillion (U.S.), depending on the duration of those obligations. To put that in perspective, as recently as 2000 the national debt accumulated during the entire history of the republic was about $5 trillion (U.S.).


In a well-reasoned essay titled "The Case for Restraint" in the November-December edition of The American Interest, U.S. political scientist Barry Posen grades America's persistent attempts to impose its vision on the world.


"Since the end of the Cold War 16 years ago, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been running an experiment with U.S. grand strategy," writes Posen, the Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


"The theory to be tested has been this: Very good intentions, plus very great power, plus action can transform both international politics and the domestic politics of other states in ways that are advantageous to the United States, and at costs it can afford. The evidence is in: The experiment has failed. Transformation is unachievable, and costs are high."


Posen's treatise (available at is an obvious counterpoint to the cri de coeur of the Project for the New American Century. That 1997 neo-con manifesto–signed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Norman Podhoretz, and 20 kindred spirits–urged the creation of what William Kristol, then-chair of the Project for the New American Century, would later describe in a piece co-authored with Robert Kagan in Foreign Affairs magazine as a "benevolent global hegemony."


That meant maintaining America's unrivalled influence against emerging rival superpowers, China in particular.


It was the neo-cons' misfortune to put aside misgivings about Bush (Kristol's The Weekly Standard endorsed John McCain in 2000) and see their designs on regime change in Baghdad and Tehran taken up by one of the least competent administrations in memory.


Yet Democrats are more complicit in the notion of American exceptionalism than Republicans. The early neo-cons were inspired by Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democratic U.S. senator and Vietnam-War hawk, and contemporary neo-cons modelled their fantastical vision for Americanizing the Middle East on another interventionist Democrat: the World War I-era president Woodrow Wilson.


It was John F. Kennedy who committed the U.S. to paying any price and bearing any burden to assure the global embrace of American values, and his vice-president who transformed Vietnam into a quagmire. And it was Clinton, in his 1997 State of the Union Address, who declared America to be "the indispensable nation."


Alistair Cooke – the 20th-century successor to Alexis de Tocqueville in examining the American character for the benefit of a foreign audience – said in a 1968 Letter from America radio broadcast that JFK's invocation of Pax Americana on the day of his inaugural in 1961 was "magnificent as rhetoric, appalling as policy." By then a permanent U.S. resident, Cooke sadly concluded, "Vietnam, I fear, is the price of the Kennedy inaugural." So is Iraq.


All of the Democratic frontrunners for the presidency pledge a continuing U.S. military role in the Middle East, where America's very presence is arguably the greatest obstacle to resolving the multitude of animosities in the region. Hillary Clinton – who joined a majority of fellow Democratic U.S. senators in 2002 in authorizing Bush to wage war in Iraq – recently voted for a Senate resolution that gained overwhelming passage and brands Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. The poorly understood RGC, an adjunct to Iran's regular army, is a hybrid of armed forces and business managers who run many of Iran's major industries and essential services.


That Senate vote was akin to Britain declaring the U.S. Armed Forces and the Fortune 500 to be terrorist enterprises. (The U.S. House of Representatives declined to take up the absurd motion. America stopped short of demonizing even the Wehrmacht in that manner.)


The appeal of Barack Obama's presidential bid arises mainly from his having opposed the Iraq war before it began. But as recently as 2004, Obama said, "There's not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush's at this stage," explaining his votes to extend funding for the war.


More recently, Obama tried to inflate his hawkish credentials by vowing to invade a sovereign Pakistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden, with or without Islamabad's assent.


Since its inception, America has regarded itself as exceptional, a curse that has fed the American sense of omniscience that Kennedy came to rue. An exaggerated belief in its prowess has prompted America to deploy troops or sponsor insurrections abroad on close to 300 occasions since the country was founded. Just as Thomas Jefferson was certain of victory in the War of 1812 ("We shall strip her (Britain) of all her possessions on this continent"), Cheney was over-confident in 2002 in selling an Iraq invasion to a skeptical Dick Armey, then-Republican House majority leader.


"We have great information (about Iraq)," said Cheney in that exchange. "They're going to welcome us. It'll be like the American Army going through the streets of Paris. They're sitting there ready to form a new government. The people will be so happy with their freedoms that we'll probably back ourselves out of there within a month or two."


America might profitability take to heart Gandhi's counsel to be the change you wish to see in the world, after betraying its stated values by torturing detainees and illegally wiretapping its own citizens. Maybe it's too soon after September 11, 2001, to ask Americans why they allow their politics to be held hostage by fear. America is far safer from external threat than its scare-mongering leaders and mass media suggest, and terrorists are far weaker – as Europeans learned from the traumatizing but ineffectual activities of the Red Brigades, the Irish Republican Army, and the Baader-Meinhof group.


America has suffered greatly by over-reacting to forces whose only weapon is fear – "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror," as Franklin Roosevelt said in another context.


A U.S. foreign-policy renaissance is inevitable. The U.S. is a nuclear superpower, but the same can't be said of its conventional military forces. With the bulk of them tied down for years by a mere insurgency in a fourth-rate power, their global ambit has been shown to be surprisingly limited.


By mid-century, five power blocs – the U.S., China, India, Russia and the E.U. – will vie for global influence. Unilateral action on major issues by any one of them will be impossible, and cooperation among them of mutual necessity.


Because of its role in helping save the world from fascism and staring down the Soviet Union in the 20th century, America retains enough residual goodwill to be greeted warmly as a housebroken member of the community of nations.


The alternative, a status quo that George W. Bush has shown to be obsolete, was described by Alistair Cooke in a 1946 broadcast that accurately predicted the next half-century of American foreign policy.


"If it should happen that America, in its new period of world power, comes to do what every other world power has done, if Americans should have to govern large numbers of foreigners, you must expect that Americans will be well hated before they are admired for themselves."



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Archbishop's assault on US foreign policy


By Auslan Cramb

Last Updated: 1:45am GMT 26/11/2007


The Archbishop of Canterbury has launched a stinging attack on the United States, comparing it unfavourably with the British Empire at its peak.


Dr Rowan Williams criticised America for intervening overseas with a "quick burst of violent action" and claimed its foreign policy had created the "worst of all worlds".


The wide-ranging interview with a British Muslim lifestyle magazine included the Anglican leader's most outspoken criticisms to date of the US and the war in Iraq.


He also said that the modern Western definition of humanity was not working, and that there was something about Western modernity that "really does eat away at the soul".


Dr Williams said the crisis in Iraq was caused by America's misguided sense of its mission in the world and ridiculed the "chosen nation" myth in America and the idea that what happened there was God's purpose.


Full article in The Independent

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America in the Time of Empire


Posted on Nov 26, 2007


By Chris Hedges


This column was originally published by the Philadelphia Inquirer.


All great empires and nations decay from within. By the time they hobble off the world stage, overrun by the hordes at the gates or vanishing quietly into the pages of history books, what made them successful and powerful no longer has relevance. This rot takes place over decades, as with the Soviet Union, or, even longer, as with the Roman, Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empires. It is often imperceptible.


Dying empires cling until the very end to the outward trappings of power. They mask their weakness behind a costly and technologically advanced military. They pursue increasingly unrealistic imperial ambitions. They stifle dissent with efficient and often ruthless mechanisms of control. They lose the capacity for empathy, which allows them to see themselves through the eyes of others, to create a world of accommodation rather than strife. The creeds and noble ideals of the nation become empty cliches, used to justify acts of greater plunder, corruption and violence. By the end, there is only a raw lust for power and few willing to confront it.


The most damning indicators of national decline are upon us. We have watched an oligarchy rise to take economic and political power. The top 1 percent of the population has amassed more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, creating economic disparities unseen since the Depression. If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president, we will see the presidency controlled by two families for the last 24 years.


Massive debt, much of it in the hands of the Chinese, keeps piling up as we fund absurd imperial projects and useless foreign wars. Democratic freedoms are diminished in the name of national security. And the erosion of basic services, from education to health care to public housing, has left tens of millions of citizens in despair. The displacement of genuine debate and civil and political discourse with the noise and glitter of public spectacle and entertainment has left us ignorant of the outside world, and blind to how it perceives us. We are fed trivia and celebrity gossip in place of news.


An increasing number of voices, especially within the military, are speaking to this stark deterioration. They describe a political class that no longer knows how to separate personal gain from the common good, a class driving the nation into the ground.


“There has been a glaring and unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders,” retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of forces in Iraq, recently told the New York Times, adding that civilian officials have been “derelict in their duties” and guilty of a “lust for power.”


The American working class, once the most prosperous on Earth, has been politically disempowered, impoverished and abandoned. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas. State and federal assistance programs have been slashed. The corporations, those that orchestrated the flight of jobs and the abolishment of workers’ rights, control every federal agency in Washington, including the Department of Labor. They have dismantled the regulations that had made the country’s managed capitalism a success for ordinary men and women. The Democratic and Republican Parties now take corporate money and do the bidding of corporate interests.


Philadelphia is a textbook example. The city has seen a precipitous decline in manufacturing jobs, jobs that allowed households to live comfortably on one salary. The city had 35 percent of its workforce employed in the manufacturing sector in 1950, perhaps the zenith of the American empire. Thirty years later, this had fallen to 20 percent. Today it is 8.8 percent. Commensurate jobs, jobs that offer benefits, health care and most important enough money to provide hope for the future, no longer exist. The former manufacturing centers from Flint, Mich., to Youngstown, Ohio, are open sores, testaments to a growing internal collapse.


The United States has gone from being the world’s largest creditor to its largest debtor. As of September 2006, the country was, for the first time in a century, paying out more than it received in investments. Trillions of dollars go into defense while the nation’s infrastructure, from levees in New Orleans to highway bridges in Minnesota, collapses. We spend almost as much on military power as the rest of the world combined, while Social Security and Medicare entitlements are jeopardized because of huge deficits. Money is available for war, but not for the simple necessities of daily life.


Nothing makes these diseased priorities more starkly clear than what the White House did last week. On the same day, Tuesday, President Bush vetoed a domestic spending bill for education, job training and health programs, yet signed another bill giving the Pentagon about $471 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. All this in the shadow of a Joint Economic Committee report suggesting that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been twice as expensive than previously imagined, almost $1.5 trillion.


The decision to measure the strength of the state in military terms is fatal. It leads to a growing cynicism among a disenchanted citizenry and a Hobbesian ethic of individual gain at the expense of everyone else. Few want to fight and die for a Halliburton or an Exxon. This is why we do not have a draft. It is why taxes have not been raised and we borrow to fund the war. It is why the state has organized, and spends billions to maintain, a mercenary army in Iraq. We leave the fighting and dying mostly to our poor and hired killers. No nationwide sacrifices are required. We will worry about it later.


It all amounts to a tacit complicity on the part of a passive population. This permits the oligarchy to squander capital and lives. It creates a world where we speak exclusively in the language of violence. It has plunged us into an endless cycle of war and conflict that is draining away the vitality, resources and promise of the nation.


It signals the twilight of our empire.



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