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December 23, 2006

A Bad Year for Empire

by Jim Lobe

For those who believed that the precise and overwhelming demonstration of U.S. military power in Afghanistan and Iraq would "shock and awe" the rest of the world – and particularly Washington's foes and aspiring rivals – into accepting its benevolent hegemony, 2006 was not a good year.

Not only has Washington become ever more bogged down – at the current rate of nearly three billion dollars and 20 soldiers' lives a week – in an increasingly fragmented and violent Iraq whose de facto civil war threatens to draw in its neighbors, but a resurgent Taliban has exposed the fragility of what gains have been made in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led military campaign ousted the group five years ago.

In neighboring Pakistan, the U.S.-backed government of President Pervez Musharraf has withdrawn its forces from tribal areas along the Afghan border, effectively handing control of the region to pro-Taliban forces believed to be sheltering al-Qaeda.

In Lebanon, a pro-Western government, the product of last year's U.S.-backed "Cedar Revolution," finds itself under siege from a Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah which appears to have emerged from last summer's war with Israel stronger and more confident than ever.

Meanwhile, North Korea ended its longstanding moratorium on testing its ballistic missiles on the Fourth of July, thus making its own rather defiant contribution to the fireworks traditionally associated with Washington's Independence Day celebrations. Apparently dissatisfied with Washington's appreciation, Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test four months later.

Similarly, Iran, the other surviving member of Bush's "Axis of Evil," announced last April that it successfully enriched uranium and subsequently shrugged off U.S. and European demands that it freeze its program, even as it hosted a succession of leaders from the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad and offered Washington help in stabilizing Iraq provided that it dropped its "arrogant" attitude.

An increasingly assertive and energy-rich Russia has also become noticeably more defiant over the past year, challenging with growing success Washington's post-9/11 military encroachment in the Caucasus and Central Asia and effectively reversing two of the three U.S.-backed "color revolutions" – in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan – in its near abroad.

The looming succession battle in Turkmenistan, whose natural gas endowments and strategic perch next to both Iran and Afghanistan make it a very desirable piece of real estate, will likely intensify this latest version of "Great Game."

By collaborating with China in both the U.N. Security Council and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Moscow has also challenged the unipolarists' notion that Washington's overwhelming global military dominance would not provoke the creation of countervailing coalitions designed to contain its power.

Even in Africa, defying the U.S. came at little cost. Sudan, accused by Bush himself for two years of committing genocide in Darfur, maneuvered Washington into backing a clearly unworkable peace accord and then, when it fell apart, not only rejected repeated U.S. demands to permit deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force to the region, but also helped spread the conflict into neighboring Chad and Central African Republic.

In nearby Somalia, meanwhile, covert U.S. support for a coalition of warlords, who had kept the country in a permanent state of insecurity for more than a decade, backfired big-time last summer when an Islamic militia that Washington accuses of being linked to al-Qaeda chased them out of the country. As the year ends, the U.S. is effectively backing Ethiopia's deployment of thousands of troops in support of the disintegrating interim government in Baidoa, permitting the Islamists' to rally nationalist opinion for a war that analysts fear could burst beyond Somalia's borders.

In Latin America, Washington averted the worst – the victory of leftwing presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexican elections last summer. Nonetheless, clumsy U.S. efforts to influence elections over the past year in Bolivia and Nicaragua proved counter-productive, as candidates backed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who appears to delight in nothing more than provoking Bush, won in both countries, as well as in Ecuador.

Coupled with Chávez' own sweeping victory earlier this month, the year's elections results in Latin America appear to have confirmed a left-wing populist and anti-U.S. trend – the so-called "pink tide" – which, along with the recent disclosures regarding ties between right-wing paramilitaries and the government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, poses serious threats to Washington's multi-billion-dollar anti-drug effort in the Andes.

Elections elsewhere also proved disappointing to Washington's unipolar ambitions, none more so than last January's victory, despite last-minute efforts by Washington bolster Fatah, of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Not only did the election set back prospects for resuming a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but Bush's reaction – to isolate rather than engage the winner, and, more recently, to actively seek its ouster – made clear that Washington's "freedom agenda" for the Middle East was largely rhetorical, except when aimed against hostile states like Syria or Iran.

Indeed, Hamas' victory and the growing strength and popularity of Islamist parties throughout the Arab world brought to a screeching halt U.S. pressure on friendly authoritarian governments, notably Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, to implement democratic reform. Meanwhile, the administration has tried to rope them into an alliance with Israel against what Jordan's King Abdullah has referred to as the ascendant "Shia Crescent" of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah.

Of course, the most important revolt against the Bush administration's Washington's globocop aspirations took place here at home last month when voters handed Democrats control of both houses of Congress in mid-term elections in which Iraq and foreign policy, by virtually all accounts, played the decisive role.

While the warhawks predictably claimed that the results reflected more the public's lack of confidence in the way Bush had carried out policy than on the policy itself, a battery of polls in both the run-up to the election and immediately afterward found that that a large majority of citizens believe the administration's belligerent unilateralism had made the United States – as well as the rest of the world – less, rather than more, safe.

Nearly eight in 10 respondents in one survey sponsored by the influential Council on Foreign Relations and designed by legendary pollster Daniel Yankelovich said they thought the world saw the U.S. as "arrogant," and nearly 90 percent said such negative perceptions threaten national security.

"It's not just a matter of (wanting to be) well-loved or nice," said Yankelovich.

Whether the implications of these findings, as well as the elections results – not to mention the foreign policy balance sheet of 2006 – will be absorbed by Bush and his senior policy-makers in 2007, however, remains very much in doubt.

The post-election departure of two arch-unilateralists, former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and U.N. Amb. John Bolton, notwithstanding, nothing fires up the imperial impulse more than multiplying acts of defiance.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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