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The Perils of the Pax Americana

Policies virtually identical to President George W. Bush’s national security strategy paper of last September, with its ambitious military, economic and political goals, have been produced since the late 1940s.

After all, the US has attempted to define the contours of politics in every part of the world for the past half-century. Its many alliances, from NATO to SEATO, were intended to consolidate its global hegemony. And Washington rationalised its hundreds of interventions–which have taken every form, from sending its fleet to show the flag, to the direct use of US soldiers–as forestalling the spread of communism. But that ogre has all but disappeared and US armed forces are more powerful and active than ever.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks compelled him to create “coalitions”, Bush minimised somewhat the initial aggressive unilateralism that he and many of his key advisers believe the US’s overwhelming military capability justifies.

But his disregard of America’s allies in the past year is only the logical culmination of the much older conviction that Washington must define the missions of whatever alliance it creates. The world has changed dramatically, but the US still retains its historical ambitions to shape the political destinies of any region or nation it deems important to its interests. Bush’s visions are only the logical culmination of policies that began with president Harry Truman in 1947.

The dilemma that the US has confronted since then is that the political and social outcome of its interventions cannot be predicted. Vietnam was the longest war in US history, to cite one of many examples, and in Iran in 1953, as well as Central America, it seemed able to get its way for decades. Many tyrants it supported–as in the case of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-87 or the fundamentalist Muslim mujahidin against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the ’80s–subsequently became its enemies. Others are simply venal and unreliable–Marcos in the Philippines or Suharto in Indonesia were typical.

The US can never attain the world order it idealises. Innumerable successes notwithstanding, it has also failed to create many of the preconditions essential to achievement of that goal. The world since 1990 has become much more fissiparous economically and politically. Bipolarity in world military relations ended with the demise of communism but the world is more unstable and dangerous than ever. More nations have great firepower–aided in part by US exports accounting for more than two-fifths of the world’s arms trade since the late ’90s–and the spread of weapons of mass destruction has continued unabated.

Before September 11, 2001, China was the principal justification for the US’s vast military expenditures. But since then a fear and a sense of danger from indefinable enemies, now located everywhere, has sufficed to expand them further. Terrorism is indeed abetted by the necessity of the weak to find vulnerabilities in the very strong; it is relatively very cheap, and the religious fanaticism that encourages it has flourished in the misery and ignorance that prevails in much of the Third World. Terrorism will not disappear.

Yet there are innumerable situations where arms are not merely irrelevant but, as Vietnam proved, counterproductive. As we know from a growing number of memoirs as well as experience, the CIA and various officials have futilely attempted since the late ’40s to make US policies adapt to facts, however uncomfortable they were. Conservative former US senior foreign policy leaders and military men–such as president George Bush Sr’s national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Ronald Reagan’s navy secretary James Webb–have publicly deplored a war against Iraq. Things go wrong for every great nation whose ambitions exceed its power and reality, and the US is no exception.

The war in Afghanistan has destabilised Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Last month’s comprehensive Pew Report on public opinion in 42 nations, which former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright chaired, revealed that anti-Americanism has grown in at least 19 countries since 2000 and that the French, Germans, Turks, and Russians–to name but a few–oppose a war against Iraq. In South Korea and Pakistan, anti-Americanism has already caused the politics of those nations to change dramatically. Many of Washington’s traditional allies fear its belligerent unilateralism as much as terrorism.

The US has always had global priorities, but Europe was invariably ranked as the most important. Protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam confirmed that the US has often lost control of these priorities and that by attempting too much it not merely accomplishes far less, but also destabilises crucial areas. A half-century after the fighting ended, 37,000 US troops remain in South Korea and the dangerous security situation there is still unresolved. And there is mounting political instability in Latin America, where poverty is rampant.

The US now confronts a similar dilemma in the Persian Gulf. The stakes are awesome and could preoccupy the world for years to come. Will the geopolitical consequences of making war against Iraq far outweigh the world’s realisation that the Pentagon still retains “credible” military power and that the Bush administration is ready to employ it, whatever the ultimate political, economic, and human costs?

Will the Kurds in Iraq proclaim de facto independence and risk civil war? What will the Turks then do? How long must US troops occupy that nation and how will they relate to its mercurial political context?

Osama bin Laden and his key aides are still free, and Afghanistan is a highly unstable, divided country. Will Iran, which is militarily far stronger than Iraq, emerge as strategically dominant in the oil-rich Gulf–thereby undoing the reasons Washington supported Hussein in the ’80s? And will a US military victory in Iraq have any bearing on the war against terrorism, not the least because al-Qaida detests Hussein’s secularism?

There have always been limits to US power, and the question today is when and how the US will acknowledge this reality.

GABRIEL KOLKO, research professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, is author, most recently, of Another Century of War? (The New Press, 2002). He can be reached at: kolko@counterpunch.org

 

 

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GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience

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