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Is America Still the World's Leader?

How failed foreign policies, the Great Recession, the Arab Spring, and a new relationship with Europe have changed America's global role.

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 2:44 PM PST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

In every aspect of human existence, change is a constant. Yet change that actually matters occurs only rarely. Even then, except in retrospect, genuinely transformative change is difficult to identify. By attributing cosmic significance to every novelty and declaring every unexpected event a revolution, self-assigned interpreters of the contemporary scene—politicians and pundits above all—exacerbate the problem of distinguishing between the trivial and the non-trivial.

Did 9/11 "change everything"? For a brief period after September 2001, the answer to that question seemed self-evident: of course it did, with massive and irrevocable implications. A mere decade later, the verdict appears less clear. Today, the vast majority of Americans live their lives as if the events of 9/11 had never occurred. When it comes to leaving a mark on the American way of life, the likes of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have long since eclipsed Osama bin Laden. (Whether the legacies of Jobs and Zuckerberg will prove other than transitory also remains to be seen.)

Anyone claiming to divine the existence of genuinely Big Change Happening Now should, therefore, do so with a sense of modesty and circumspection, recognizing the possibility that unfolding events may reveal a different story.

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All that said, the present moment is arguably one in which the international order is, in fact, undergoing a fundamental transformation. The "postwar world" brought into existence as a consequence of World War II is coming to an end. A major redistribution of global power is underway. Arrangements that once conferred immense prerogatives upon the United States, hugely benefiting the American people, are coming undone.

In Washington, meanwhile, a hidebound governing class pretends that none of this is happening, stubbornly insisting that it's still 1945 with the so-called American Century destined to continue for several centuries more (reflecting, of course, God's express intentions).

Here lies the most disturbing aspect of contemporary American politics, worse even than rampant dysfunction borne of petty partisanship or corruption expressed in the buying and selling of influence. Confronted with evidence of a radically changing environment, those holding (or aspiring to) positions of influence simply turn a blind eye, refusing even to begin to adjust to a new reality.


Big Change Happening Now

The Big Change happening before our very eyes is political, economic, and military. At least four converging vectors are involved.

First, the Collapse of the Freedom Agenda: In the wake of 9/11, the administration of George W. Bush set out to remake the Greater Middle East. This was the ultimate strategic objective of Bush's "global war on terror."

Intent on accomplishing across the Islamic world what he believed the United States had accomplished in Europe and the Pacific between 1941 and 1945, Bush sought to erect a new order conducive to US interests—one that would permit unhindered access to oil and other resources, dry up the sources of violent Islamic radicalism, and (not incidentally) allow Israel a free hand in the region. Key to the success of this effort would be the US military, which President Bush (and many ordinary Americans) believed to be unstoppable and invincible—able to beat anyone anywhere under any conditions.

Alas, once implemented, the Freedom Agenda almost immediately foundered in Iraq. The Bush administration had expected Operation Iraqi Freedom to be a short, tidy war with a decisively triumphant outcome. In the event, it turned out to be a long, dirty (and very costly) war yielding, at best, exceedingly ambiguous results.

Well before he left office in January 2009, President Bush himself had abandoned his Freedom Agenda, albeit without acknowledging its collapse and therefore without instructing Americans on the implications of that failure. One specific implication stands out: we now know that US military power, however imposing, falls well short of enabling the United States to impose its will on the Greater Middle East. We can neither liberate nor dominate nor tame the Islamic world, a verdict from the Bush era that Barack Obama's continuing misadventures in "AfPak" have only served to affirm.

Trying harder won't produce a different result. Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates caught the new reality best: "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it."

To be sure, Freedom Agenda dead-enders—frequently found under K in your phone book—continue to argue otherwise. Even now, for example, Kagans, Keanes, Krauthammers, and Kristols are insisting that "we won" the Iraq War—or at least had done so until President Obama fecklessly flung away a victory so gloriously gained. Essential to their argument is that no one notice how they have progressively lowered the bar defining victory.

Back in 2003, they were touting Saddam Hussein's overthrow as just the beginning of American domination of the Middle East. Today, with Saddam's departure said to have "made the world a better place," getting out of Baghdad with US forces intact has become the operative definition of success, ostensibly vindicating the many thousands killed and maimed, millions of refugees displaced, and trillions of dollars expended.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia remains in the field, conducting some 30 attacks per week against Iraqi security forces and civilians. This we are expected not to notice. Some victory.

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