July 29, 2002

Regime Change in Iran? : Applying George W. Bush’s “liberation theology” to the mullahs. (Reuel Marc Gerecht, 08/05/2002, Weekly Standard)

Stepping away from the “realist” world of his father–where a vision of regional stability, not a belief in individual liberty and democracy, drove foreign policy–George W. Bush has sliced across national borders and civilizational divides with an unqualified assertion of a moral norm. The president declared, “The people of Iran want the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as people around the world.” America will stand “alongside people everywhere determined to build a world of freedom, dignity, and tolerance. . . . America affirms . . . its commitment to helping those in captive nations achieve democracy.” These are, at least to Iranian ears, truly revolutionary words for an American president. One has to go back to Woodrow Wilson to find an American leader who so clearly directs his message far outside the West. And Wilson’s call for self-determination, made in the declining years of European empire, addressed collective, “national” ethnic aspirations more than the liberal rights of individuals.

Though the president’s “liberation theology” is obviously a work in progress (as, if we remember, was Reagan’s), the philosophical borders of the president’s views are sufficiently clear that it will be difficult for those in his administration and in the media who are disturbed, if not terrified, by Bush’s creed to walk back the policy. They will, no doubt, try. The State Department of Colin Powell will endeavor to introduce a bit of opaqueness into the discussion, striving to keep open the possibility, deeply cherished, it strongly appears, by the director of policy planning, Richard Haass, that U.S. and Iranian officials can somehow sit and talk. For State, sitting and talking with foreign dignitaries is usually an end in itself, imbued with a non-negotiable moral goodness. (Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer will, of course, have the unenviable task of articulating the contradictory public truces between State, the Pentagon, and the White House, which will make it appear that the president is trying to alter his original language, if not his intent.) And the president may well be lazy, cautious, or somewhat confused about turning his ideals into a consistent, effective policy. For example, preaching liberty, the rule of law, and democracy for Palestinians on only one bank of the Jordan river is an odd, if not unsustainable, rhetorical position. Yet despite the unorthodox, public way foreign policy is being made, and unmade, in this administration, it seems clear that the president isn’t going to stop his Reaganesque approach. The possible contradictions in the president’s actions are unlikely to blunt the revolutionary edge and appeal of his message in the Middle East.

You have to wonder–once the process of liberalization gets started, as it did in Afghanistan–how long any of the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East can withstand persistent pressure, both rhetorical and military, from the United States. We always underestimate the power of the call of freedom, which is why the rapid collapse of the Iron Curtain came as such a shock to people. But on the second anniversary of 9/11 it seems entirely possible that more liberal regimes will be in place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and even in Syria and Saudi Arabia. In twenty years we may understand the events of 9/11 to have been nothing more than the final wild death thrashes of a venomous snake. And just as Afghanistan was the burial place of Soviet dreams of world domination so may the Islamic Revolution have expired there.



July 17, 2002

The Eagle Has Crash Landed : Pax Americana is over. Challenges from Vietnam and the Balkans to the Middle East and September 11 have revealed the limits of American supremacy. Will the United States learn to fade quietly, or will U.S. conservatives resist and thereby transform a gradual decline into a rapid and dangerous fall? (Immanuel Wallerstein, July/August 2002, Foreign Policy)

The United States’ success as a hegemonic power in the postwar period created the conditions of the nation’s hegemonic demise. This process is captured in four symbols: the war in Vietnam, the revolutions of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Each symbol built upon the prior one, culminating in the situation in which the United States currently finds itself-a lone superpower that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously amidst a global chaos it cannot control.

You really have to read the whole essay to get a flavor for its completely nonsensical nature. it will have to suffice for now to point out that Mr. Wallerstein argues both that Vietnam was a disaster because of the damage that paying for it did to our economy and that we did not want the Cold War, which as a whole had obviously done far more damage, to end. In what can only be described as a Lewis Carroll moment, he describes the U.S. as losing ground in the economic race with Japan and describes the U.S. economy as relatively weak. In reality, there is not a single advanced nation whose economy is doing as well as ours. If Europe and/or Japan were actually capable of rivaling America as an economic power, the past two years were the time to show it. The Fed induced deflation, the bursting of the bubble, and the events of September 11th dealt a series of hammer blows to the U.S. economy and provided an opening for these other developed nations to exploit. Instead, their already feeble economies tumbled still further without us buying their products at the customary rate. More importantly, the American economy has shown its incredible resilience by not even going into recession despite these setbacks and is now growing again at rates others can only dream of.

Completely ignored in Mr. Wallerstein’s essay are the many demographic and systemic problems that make it utterly unlikely that America’s rivals can survive for very long into the future, never mind dominate that future. He goes prattling on about the Japanese challenge at a time when they face real population decline. Forget whether a country can pay for a modern social welfare state with a constantly declining workforce, the more general question is : has any nation in human history had a growing economy at the same time that it had a falling population? I’m unaware of any.

He likewise ignores the realities of what it truly means to be a hegemon :

The United States faces two possibilities during the next 10 years: It can follow the hawks’ path, with negative consequences for all but especially for itself. Or it can realize that the negatives are too great. Simon Tisdall of the Guardian recently argued that even disregarding international public opinion, “the U.S. is not able to fight a successful Iraqi war by itself without incurring immense damage, not least in terms of its economic interests and its energy supply. Mr. Bush is reduced to talking tough and looking ineffectual.” And if the United States still invades Iraq and is then forced to withdraw, it will look even more ineffectual.

Let’s assume he’s right, which seems highly dubious, and that our invasion of Iraq turns into a bloody and ineffective campaign, just like Korea and Vietnam were and like a land invasion of the Soviet Union would likely have been. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. unlike those three earlier scenarios we can now just nuke the living daylights out of Baghdad and no one can say boo. This is what it really means to be the world’s only superpower. The problem for the world is not that we are too arrogant now; we’ve really behaved quite decently despite the unprecedented amount of power we find in our hands. No, the problem is that there is absolutely nothing to stop us from behaving in arrogant, tyrannical, even monstrous fashion if we decide we want to. Mr. Wallerstein’s image of the U.S. meekly withdrawing from Iraq is a left over from the Cold War. It does not reflect the situation as it obtains today. American supremacy, in the truest sense, the sense of the supreme ability to determine which nations survive and which don’t, is only now, for the first time, becoming unlimited. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the American people had served as the sole limitation, their desire to be left alone and to bask in their unimaginable wealth effectively limiting what the government could do in the world. But that changed rather significantly on September 11th, in ways that Mr. Wallerstein seems not to have begun to comprehend. The American people, who were the only effective brake on the exercise of American power, now have their collective foot poised just above the gas pedal. As Ronald Reagan used to say : You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.