The Unfettered Gulliver Is America Overreaching Itself?
The United States is unchallenged in its global dominance, militarily, economically and culturally. But the world's only remaining superpower is beginning to suffer from the disease with which every imperial power throughout history has been afflicted: the overestimation and overtaxing of its own capabilities. Could the Iraq war herald its decline?
Editor's Note: The following feature was published in the March 17, 2003 issue of SPIEGEL in the run-up to the Iraq war. SPIEGEL ONLINE International is reposting the story as part of its coverage of the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war.
He spends an hour a day jogging. He watches baseball on his favorite network, ESPN. He prays. The first thing he reads every morning is the latest "threat scenario," a summary of current terrorism warnings prepared by the intelligence services. He keeps his strategy meetings with his closest advisors brief and spends a lot of time on the telephone with foreign leaders. He regularly speaks with his father, and the current joke is that "43 is calling 41," a reference to their positions in the chronology of American presidents. He eats low-calorie dinners. He avoids alcohol. He claims that he's sleeping well, and he says: "If anyone can make their peace with something like this, then I've made my peace."
The thing with which he has made peace is the war with Iraq. George W. Bush is apparently convinced that it is inevitable. Everyone who knows him well says that the American president is not someone for whom making such a serious decision comes easily. For Bush, however, the war against Saddam Hussein is a moral and political impetus. Whether it is waged on the strength of a UN resolution and in keeping with international law, together with a "Coalition of the Willing," or alone is a secondary issue. "When it comes to our national security, we don't need anybody's permission," says the president. "I swore to protect and uphold our constitution. I placed my hand on the bible and took the oath of office."
The world is filled with skeptics. Last week, one after another, the world's doubting Thomases, those who refused to be converted, lined up to criticize the world's superpower at the United Nations. Many of their pleas were impressive, in spite of the fact that these fiery apostles of justice also included many hypocrites who routinely witness many a breach of the law in their countries without raising a finger. Of 28 speakers whose countries are not represented on the Security Council, only two, those representing Australia and Kuwait, were in agreement with Washington's war logic.
The justifications for an attack on Iraq brought to the table by Bush and his Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, were too contradictory, running the gamut from a desire to protect American citizens from the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein is supposedly hiding somewhere, to linking unproven Al Qaeda contacts to Osama bin Laden, which would establish a connection between Iraq and the attacks of September 11th and, finally, to a focus on saving the Middle East's enormous oil reserves from the capriciousness of an aggressive dictator.
At times, Washington has created the impression that it would be sufficient to disarm Iraq's brutal dictator, and that he no longer poses a threat to his neighbors. But the more evident it becomes that Saddam Hussein - faced with a threatening US military buildup and diplomatic pressure exerted by the UN - finds himself forced to engage in substantial disarmament, the more clearly are leading US politicians formulating their true objectives. What they want is regime change brought about by military action, a geopolitical new order throughout the entire region. What they are planning, critical in terms of international law, is not a defensive war in which they have been forced to engage, but a self-styled preventive war. No one has the right to do so, not even the United States, the world's vain superpower.
While many issues remain unresolved, such as the details of American scenarios for the post-Saddam era, exactly who in Baghdad would qualify for amnesty, and which roles could be played by exiled Iraqi politicians, George W. Bush has essentially committed himself to one issue: The United States will occupy Iraq and its oil fields. It will make it a bridgehead for its interests in the Middle East. According to Washington, the well-being of this global power coincides with that of the local population. A prosperous Baghdad, complete with democratic institutions, is to be transferred to local control "as fast as possible" (Bush), and is to serve as a beacon of reform for the entire Middle East.
Anyone can take some element of the American chain of thought and apply it to his own agenda. The argument for idealists: The emerging model republic will make democracy attractive in all Arab states, which, like dominos, will become part of a "Pax Americana." The argument for political realists: The new, liberated Iraq will no longer pose a threat to Israel, which will make it possible to exert greater pressure on Sharon's right-leaning administration to come to terms with moderate Palestinian factions. The argument for cynics: Iraq has the world's second-largest oil reserves. Even if democracy fails to materialize, they can assure the Americans a reliable, cheap source of energy and destroy the OPEC price cartel. In the opinion of the hawks, Iraq, as a test case, will give Washington free rein to remove unfriendly regimes in other countries. Some members of the military already view the Americans as the indisputable masters of the world, and the future as a series of conquests in the realms of rogue states: today Baghdad, tomorrow Damascus, Teheran, Pyongyang. Others do not believe in this omnipotence. They already see the seeds of decline in George W. Bush' actions. "Superpower USA - An Obituary," is the title of a provocative book by French political scientist Emmanuel Todd, in which he attempts to show that "Washington is losing its grip on power." At first glance, those who would predict triumph for the United States seem to have every argument on their side. Throughout the history of mankind, certainly no country has existed that has so thoroughly dominated the world with its politics, its tanks and its products as the United States does today.
The United States is number one in every decisive element of power politics. With 4.5 percent of the world's population, it is responsible for 31 percent of the world's total economic output. This year, it is spending more on defense than the next ten countries combined. It dominates the industries of the future, and it employs a substantial share of the world's Nobel prize winners in its elite universities. The US's highly successful "cultural exports" range from Big Macs to Baywatch and Britney Spears. And sometimes the Third World's angry youth, as they burn American flags and condemn "Coca-Coca Colonization," happen to be wearing original "stone-washed Levis."
Virtually none of the world's conflicts can be resolved without the Americans, and this is something that even those unwilling to see this as something positive are forced to concede. All of the parties to conflicts in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East are aware of the US's critical influence. And even if George W. Bush is humiliated by the United Nations, everything speaks for the fact that America will prevail militarily in Iraq, a country torn by tribal and religious conflict. The only remaining superpower can afford - at least without incurring visible damage in the short term - to pay no heed to world opinion, to ignore the supreme council of nations, and to bend international law.
But everything points to a Pyrrhic victory. Others could use the same justification in applying the Bush doctrine of preventive war and subsequent regime change, with unforeseeable consequences for world peace. Examples include India, in its battle with the (potentially) deadly threat from Pakistan, Russia, in its conflict with neighboring Georgia, which (presumably) is still harboring terrorists, and China against the (once-upon-a-time) aggressive Taiwanese renegades.
For America itself, its planned attack on Iraq without the backing of international law would represent a geopolitical turning point that has not occurred since the end of the Cold War.
During the past 60 years, Washington has been at the forefront of developing international organizations, defense and commercial alliances. The system of rules and partnerships created, at least among democratic nations, common interests -- and dependencies -- from which everyone benefited. The Americans agreed to provide military protection to their European and Asian allies and gave them access to markets. In return, they received diplomatic and logistic support from generally reliable partners. "The result was the most stable and prosperous international system in world history," says Professor John Ikenberry of Washington's Georgetown University. All of this no longer applies. The United States is building a new world order for itself, one in which international treaties must play second fiddle to America's own best interests and their propagation. It is a risky and very dangerous path: An imperious Gulliver is about to shake off the Lilliputians (led by the Gauls and the Russians) who would fetter him to a UN table and force him to comply with international law. But isn't it possible that the giant, in the long term, will need more than just footmen, that the world power will need more than just vassals?
Whether Washington, after succeeding militarily, will also be able to achieve peace in the Middle East without such partners as France, Germany and Russia is questionable. Unlike the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, which took place with the UN's blessing, this time the international community will not pay the costs of war. And the tremendous costs of reconstruction that will be incurred in a defeated Iraq will even exceed the budget of a superpower.
An extended military occupation (the military occupation of Japan lasted seven years) is not a viable option, and not just because of Arab sensitivities. The American public, fixated on short-term solutions and a personalized concept of the enemy, will not be prepared to leave its soldiers in Iraq for an extended period of time to perform the costly task of "nation-building," that is, once Saddam Hussein, "along with the Taliban, has been relegated to the garbage can of history" (Rumsfeld).
New, dangerous conflicts that urgently require the attention of US policies are already in the making. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, unlike Saddam Hussein of late, is provoking the United States by tossing out the UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Association and building nuclear weapons. According to Bush's principles, the US army should have marched into Pyongyang long ago. Nowhere else in the world is the risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction so great.
As a Pentagon spokesman vehemently announced, it would be "no problem" for the US military to attack two different countries, and aircraft carriers and bombers have already been brought into range. Ultimately, however, the US president will have no choice but to yield to nuclear blackmail and enter into direct negotiations with North Korea's Stalinist regime. Waging war with a nuclear state is too risky, and these reservations are soon enough likely to apply to Iran, number three in Bush's "Axis of Evil."
The overwhelming majority of people in the Middle East believes that the US president is also applying a double standard in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To the considerable embitterment of the Arabs, Bush has given free rein to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his efforts to build settlements in the occupied territories, has repeatedly used his veto to prevent Israel's condemnation in the UN Security Council, and has placed the schedule for a Palestinian state on the back burner for many months -- until suddenly making a "Middle East Peace Initiative" one his chief concerns late last week. And then there is the most pressing conflict of all, America's unfinished "War Against Terrorism." The superpower's resources are being spread very thinly, especially as a result of this conflict. This not only applies to combat helicopters, aircraft carriers and smart bombs. The costs of fighting terrorist networks are tremendous, and range from conducting conventional military campaigns to smuggling in agents, wiretapping, and monitoring bank transactions. The recent wave of successful arrests of terrorists cannot conceal the fact that most of the key planners are still at large, and that the Al Qaeda hydra keeps growing new heads.
American anti-terrorism units are currently deployed in more than a dozen countries worldwide, from Yemen to Somalia to Pakistan, from Columbia to Indonesia and the Philippines. And then there are the UN peacekeeper missions, in which Washington continues to be involved, from the Balkans to East Timor. At probably no other point in history has Washington fought on so many fronts -- and at the same time.
Great empires tend to take on too much, wrote British historian Paul Kennedy in his bestseller "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." Some, like the Roman Empire, probably decayed from within and were then destroyed by a multitude of pinprick-like attacks by "barbarians." Many others, however, such as the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 17th century, failed because they overestimated their powers and overtaxed themselves, failed as a result of having too many obligations -- an "imperial overextending." In the late 1980s, Kennedy, a professor at Yale, wrote that the United States was also in a state of "relative decline." In a 1997 SPIEGEL interview, when confronted with the fact that under Bill Clinton's administration, with a budget surplus running into the billions and economic growth in all sectors of the economy, from the military to Hollywood, the country seemed to be on an unwaveringly upward course, Kennedy said that he would give the Americans "another five years to keep feeling good about themselves." The prophet seems to have been correct, at least with respect to the national budget: Under George W. Bush, the government is now running a record deficit, and the deficit forecast for the next 10 years comes to an unimaginable 1.8 trillion dollars. Nonetheless, the president still continues to expand America's imperial ambitions.
A foreign policy doctrine that bears the name of George W. Bush: If a political observer in Washington had dared to predict such a thing just two years ago, he would have been made a laughing stock.
- Part 1: Is America Overreaching Itself?
- Part 2: An Oil Businessman from a Backwoods Town