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December 29, 2004

Bye, Bye Unipolar World

by Jim Lobe

This time a year ago, U.S. forces had just pulled former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from his "spider hole" near the Euphrates River, and top military commanders were trumpeting the crippling of the unanticipated deadly insurgency that bedeviled the U.S. occupation for months.

The administration of President George W. Bush was also jubilant, stressing, somewhat more cautiously perhaps, that, while the road ahead might still be a little bumpy, the light at the end of the tunnel of Iraqi resistance was now clearly in sight.

And with Iraq safely under wraps, so the thinking went, surely the other members of the "axis of evil," Iran and North Korea – as well as other ne'er-do-wells like Syria – would now see the writing on the wall. After all, chronic rogue Muammar Gadafi himself, apparently deeply impressed by Saddam's fate, had just announced the voluntary disarmament of all of his conventional weapons.

"We have clarified the choices left to potential adversaries," a newly confident U.S. president boasted to reporters at the White House. "I hope other leaders will find an example" in Libya's decision.

After the false dawn marked by Baghdad's fall and Bush's subsequent "Mission Accomplished" appearance on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln May 1, 2003, the moment of unconstrained U.S. supremacy – the arrival of a "New American Century" – seemed finally at hand, at least according to its advocates, as 2004 opened.

But with U.S. troops still struggling against what, by all accounts, is an even more lethal and sophisticated insurgency one year later, the "unipolar world" so devoutly sought after by the neoconservatives and aggressive nationalists that make up the Bush administration's foreign-policy leadership seems more doubtful than ever.

And Washington's continued pre-occupation with the situation in Iraq – in spite of its many muttered warnings to both Tehran and Pyongyang – makes it clear to friend and foe alike (if not to the administration's own diehards and "dead enders") that, while not yet the "pitiful, helpless giant" that tormented former president Richard Nixon's sleep, the American Colossus is not up to global domination.

It is not just that the Pentagon finally admitted, if implicitly, that it did not have enough troops in Iraq to control the country by dispatching 12,000 more troops to add to the 138,000 already deployed there. Washington's weakness is also manifest in the dwindling number of countries of its famed "coalition of the willing" that took part – however nominally – in the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

The unipolarists have long claimed that the United States was so dominant that, as the world saw it succeed in Iraq, recalcitrant allies, like France and Germany, and even strategic rivals, like Russia or China, would have no choice but to fall dutifully into line behind it, if only to claim a part of the spoils.

As neoconservative Francophobe, columnist Charles Krauthammer, predicted in the Washington Post last January, "France will be speaking very differently of the United States when a decent, democratizing, pro-American government in liberated Baghdad begins its rule – and opens bids for oil contracts." Everyone loves a winner, so the proverb goes.

Yet, of the 44 countries (including Palau and the Solomon Islands) the Bush administration claimed to take with it as proof of its "multilateralism" when it launched the invasion, only 28 (including Palau and the Solomon Islands) remain – testimony as to how credible U.S. power and its chances of "winning" are now seen even by its closest partners 21 months later.

Particularly damaging has been the defection of what Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, that most self-confident of hawks, called the "New Europe," which the administration clearly calculated to be the pro-American Trojan Horse that would prevent the European Union (EU) from emerging as a geopolitical counterweight to the United States.

In a telling irony, Washington's favorite, Viktor Yushchenko, promised to withdraw Ukraine's several hundred troops from Iraq during his successful presidential campaign.

Krauthammer himself laid out the neoconservative vision of early 2004 in a triumphalist speech entitled "Democratic Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World" at the annual celebration of Vice President Dick Cheney's favorite think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). It claimed that the United States "has been designated custodian of the international system" by virtue of its military superiority.

Bu it is precisely the administration's belief that U.S. military domination – which in many ways has been challenged by the Sunni insurgency in Iraq – provides it with the capacity and power to enforce its will on the rest of the world without the support of other nations that is seen as increasingly dubious.

As Frances Fukuyama, a neoconservative realist, wrote already last spring, Krauthammer's vision "is strangely disconnected from reality" in its apparent belief that the Iraq war – "the archetypical application of American unipolarity – had been an unqualified success."

"There is not the slightest nod toward the new empirical facts that have emerged in the last year or so: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the virulent and steadily mounting anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East, the growing insurgency in Iraq, the fact that no strong democratic leadership has emerged there, the enormous financial and growing human cost of the war, the failure to leverage the war to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and the fact that America's fellow democratic allies had by and large failed to fall in line and legitimate American actions ex post," wrote Fukuyama in The National Interest quarterly.

His conclusion: "The poorly executed nation-building strategy in Iraq will poison the well for future such exercises, undercutting domestic political support for a generous and visionary internationalism, just as Vietnam did."

This insight, which has become only more persuasive as a result of events – such as the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib Prison, the growing Iraqi and U.S. death toll, $125 billion in new administration requests to fund the war, and the plunge in the U.S. dollar, to name just a few – since he wrote his critique, is now widely accepted among both U.S. allies and its foreign-policy elite, with the exception, of course, of the hawks that continue to flock around Bush.

To what extent it has penetrated Bush himself is the major question confronting the president as he enters 2005 and a second term.

(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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