Saturday, January 22, 2005

Here's a piece from The Times by Matthew Parris. It's in italics. My comments are in regular type.

Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America's might is draining away

What kind of headline is that? Exactly how are Mr. Bush and his followers "vain"? "Vain", to me, means "overly pleased with oneself". If Mr. Bush's inaugural speech was any guide, America and her allies have an awful lot of very hard work to do before we can claim victory over tyranny, and Bush knows it and quite clearly said so.

WHAT TIME is it for America? If the Boston Tea Party was first light and the Gettysburg Address dawn, where between the sunrise and sunset of empire is the United States now? To judge from his inauguration speech on Thursday, President Bush thinks it is about time for morning coffee: much to be proud of but big tasks — maybe the proudest of all — still ahead. To end tyranny on Earth is no small ambition.

That's a little more like it, but I do not think that Bush was preening. I think his point was that America should participate with the rest of humanity in our common goal of freedom around the world, but that we don't do this out of a sense of pride but from a sense of duty.

Gerard Baker, the US editor of The Times, (“Don’t believe the doubters: America’s decline and fall is a long way off yet”) strikes a slightly more sanguine note. “A presidential inauguration is a chance for America to remind the world who is boss,” he smiles, “to demonstrate that the United States is the inheritor not only of Greece’s glory, but of Rome’s reach” — but Gerard would not himself go so far: he shares American anxieties about the rise of the Asian superpowers. He is confident, though, there are tremendous reserves of energy and potential still bubbling beneath the surface. “I would not bet on America’s eclipse just yet,” he concludes. For his America, I guess, it is around lunch. An afternoon’s work is still ahead.

See, I don't think the United States needs to go around proving it's the boss, because, first, it isn't, and second, it is clearly the world's leading power. When your GDP is nine trillion dollars and your closest competitors are nowhere within sight, when your army is the only one in the world that can fight outside its local area (with the possible exceptions of Britain and Australia), and when you are allied to most of the other leading nations, you have nothing to prove to anyone. As for being the boss, there are lots of places from North Korea and Cuba to India and Indonesia passing through Iran, Russia, and most of sub-Saharan Africa that do just as they please with little or no American interference.

I think it’s about half past four. For America-2005-Iraq, think of Britain-1899-Boer War. Ever-heavier burdens are being loaded upon a nation whose economic legs are growing shaky, whose hegemony is being taunted and whose sense of world mission may be faltering. “Overcommitted?” is the whisper.

How does one taunt a hegemony?

The comparison between the Boer War and Iraq makes no sense, since the Boers didn't go around invading their neighbors or supporting international terrorism. Also, the British had a much smaller competitive advantage over the Boers than the Americans have over the terrorists in Iraq, most of the Iraqi population is on the side of the new government while none of the Boers were on the side of the British, and the Boer War was a war of conquest while the Iraqi War is being fought precisely so we can go home and leave that part of the world in peace, in which it certainly was not before we went in there.

As for economic legs going shaky, GDP growth is at 5% on the year, the budget deficit is 2.9%, and unemployment, inflation, and interest rates are all comparatively very low. No comparison with 1900 Britain, which had already been caught and surpassed economically by Germany and the United States.

Sense of world mission? As far as we have one, which is attempting to spread freedom, it's not faltering at all. If it were faltering we wouldn't have sent two navy battle groups to help a country that has never been particularly friendly to us that had been struck by a natural disaster, and we wouldn't be in the process of crushing the terrorists on the ground in Iraq.

My feeling is that if the Gettysburg Address is dawn, then right now it's about eight-thirty AM or so.

Not that you would hear it in the din of drums and trumpets. More display is made in the spending of an inheritance than in its quiet accumulation, and the perfumed blossoms of July and August are heaviest after the nights have already begun to draw in. Like economic booms or summer solstices, empires have a habit of appearing at their most florid some time after their zenith has passed. Of the rise and fall of nations, history tends to find that the era of exuberance occurs when the underlying reasons for it are beginning to weaken. There is a time lag between success and swagger.

Huh? If I read this guy right what he's saying is that America is on the downhill slide. His evidence is that there is a din of drums and trumpets, whatever that has to do with anything--I am assuming he is referring to the Inauguration festivities, which cost a hell of a lot less money than your typical royal marriage that produces as heirs drunken louts who dress up as Nazis--, and that Americans are more exuberant than they should be. What dumb evidence. I personally don't notice a great deal of exuberance going on in the US; I think there's more of a feeling of challenge, and confidence that we can overcome it. I would not qualify this feeling, as Mr. Parris does, as "vanity" or "swagger".

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his autobiography. It was at Miami airport, on August 17, 2004, as I stood musing for two hours in the aliens queue for fingerprints, while contradictory instructions were aimed at confused passengers by incompetent officials (and two security men started body-searching each other) that the idea that for America the rot was setting in first started to my mind.

What exactly does a commonplace, rather silly experience in an airport have to do with Edward Gibbon, the author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"?

In more ways than were betrayed by the battle between Lycra and human flesh being waged across the massive bums of the women I saw, America 2005 is overstretched. The neoconservative Right dreams about the prospect of a big new US military intervention in Iran, or perhaps Syria, but who stops to ask whether Washington has the troops for such an adventure? The aim would have to be regime change, and that needs ground forces. Simply “taking out” Iranian nuclear installations from the air would enrage and reinforce Iran’s Islamist reactionaries, and scupper whatever pro-Western reformist movement there may be.

A) Notice that Mr. Parris cannot avoid making another lame Americans are fat joke. I suggest that he take a look at certain representatives of his own country's working class who spend a lot of time vacationing in Spain.

B) Nobody wants to go on an "adventure", as Mr. Parris puts it. The neoconservative Right does not want to go around invading everybody and his dog, as Mr. Parris would like us to think. Everybody knows that precisely the reason that we don't take out Iran or North Korea militarily is because it would be very difficult; if we could, we'd probably have already done so long since. Those places are just too big and far away, run by unpredictable crazies. As for Syria, taking out the Assad Baathist regime would not be an adventure, but a public service to humanity. No, we couldn't pull it off right now unless we really, really had to do it, but the fact that there are certain countries that the US has little influence over, and the fact that there are limits to American military reach, does not mean that the United States is in decline.

The invasion would have to take place at the same time as maintaining the occupation of Iraq. This shows no signs of reducing its call on American forces, materiel or money. The Pentagon’s efforts may even have to be stepped up after the Iraq election: this newspaper among many has called for unstinting and open-ended US commitment to Iraqi security. Whether or not you believed Tony Blair when he claimed that American Forces were in urgent need of help from our Black Watch Regiment before Christmas, you can see that as deaths mount and anarchy continues in Iraq, no US president can be thinking in terms of deploying troops away from that country for operations elsewhere.

Right, but who said the Americans were planning to invade any other country in the first place? If we had to, we could take a punch at North Korea or Iran and win. But we don't have to, so we're not even thinking of trying. It would cost way too much in blood and treasure. Being the world's leading power does not mean "we can kick anybody else's butt whenever and wherever we want", and it never has.

In 1995, 13.7 per cent of American troops were deployed abroad. Today it is some 27 per cent. America has more than 350,000 troops abroad. They are in (among other places) Ascension Island, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Egypt, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kosovo and South Korea. In at least a handful of these places it is fair to say that the country in question would collapse without them. I am no military analyst, but it seems reasonable to observe that in pursuit of US foreign and military policy, US defence forces are being pushed fairly hard. It is fanciful for the Left to fear, or the Right to hope, that at the flick of a switch President Bush can create large new arenas of American military engagement.

Well, duh, the reason more US troops are deployed overseas now than in 1995 is because we're fighting a ground war abroad now! The only places where the government would collapse if the Americans left are precisely Afghanistan and Iraq. And, let me repeat, the Right is simply not hoping that President Bush is going to turn loose the American military on somebody else. Yes, the Left fears it, but the Left is paranoid. Finally, the fact that the United States military is up against a challenge does not mean the country is in decline. We've faced a few pretty big challenges before, and this isn't much compared to, say, 1943.

And, worryingly from the longer-term point of view, many of the more significant commitments among that list look like stalemates from the military point of view. No realistic president should see reason to hope that “mission accomplished” can soon be declared in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq. America (and often Britain) is bogged down in such places.

Wait a minute. There's no combat in the Balkans. There's very little combat in Afghanistan. How can we be "bogged down" there? There's plenty of combat in Iraq but we're winning, not getting bogged down. And the fact is that we are not alone; the British and Australians and many other countries are beside us.

At the same time, I sense, America’s need for brute force as a substitute for moral suasion may be increasing. Mr Bush said “freedom” 27 times in his speech. John F. Kennedy could be more sparing with the word because the idea behind it shone so brightly for America then, and for the world. Across Africa in the past century, US foreign policy goals, which included the peaceful dissolution of the British Empire, were advanced without the firing of a shot — or the expenditure of more than the few dollars needed to fund American propaganda. Arguments are cheap, and America had the best arguments, the best visions, and the best tunes.

What? This guy has gone completely off the rails; this piece is the punditic equivalent of the Wreck of the Old 97. What the hell does the disaster of decolonization in Africa have to do with anything? Africa has never been higher than about 19th on the American list of priorities. We had to fire a lot of shots in a lot of places between 1945 and 2005 in pursuit of our foreign policy goals, and we did not achieve all of them.

Deservedly or undeservedly, America has lost the tune. Just as happened for Britain during the Boer War, something has gone unaccountably off-key. We British won that South African war in the end by sheer, bloody force; and America will not be “defeated” in Iraq, or, I suppose, anywhere else. But as armaments are increasingly substituted for arguments, the strain grows. Eventually fatigue sets in.

Whoa! That's catchy! "Fewer armaments, more arguments." Rather Jacksonesque, either Jesse or Michael. That would fit real neatly on a poster that you could then bring to a demo. Well, your typical demo-attender would write "Less armaments", but you know what I mean. And, Mr. Parris, why the scare quotes around "defeated"? Are you insinuating that we've already suffered a moral defeat? I don't think so, what with the reelection of President Bush with an absolute majority of the votes. And Mr. Parris, in the end, has to admit that the US will not lose in Iraq or anywhere else. So then how exactly is the US in decline if it's going to win all its conflicts?

There is a notion, as beloved of the European Left as of the yee-hah Right, that America’s pocket is bottomless, its Armed Forces countless, its weaponry infinite, and the only possible constraint upon its Government is the will of the people. Europeans speak as though for Washington cost is just not a consideration. This is not true of any empire or nation and has never been true of America; but it is less true today than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

Note the comparison Mr. Parris draws between the European Left, which he does not qualify with a neat turn of phrase such as "constantly sniffing in their armpits but can't decide whether it's garlic, goat cheese, or just no bath for five days," and the "yee-hah" Right, which Mr. Parris gets wrong (it's "yee-haw"). And, yes, Mr Parris is right when he says the European Left imagines America is omnipotent. This is their basic argument: America is all-powerful. Nothing happens without America's consent. Sometimes bad things happen. America must have consented to them or they wouldn't have happened. Therefore America is bad.

And I would argue that the United States is a lot better off today, as far as relative strength goes, than during the period between 1945 and 1989. During all of that era there was something called the USSR which was a very mean and nasty government. We were all afraid Russia would drop huge bombs on us, or, even worse, threaten to use huge bombs on us if we didn't give them what they wanted. An awful lot of people during those 45 years thought that America was finished and that the USSR was going to come out on top. Fortunately, that didn't happen. And it amazes me that people like Mr. Parris compare the pinprick of the Iraq war to the blade of the guillotine that a nuclear war would have meant.

For the truth is that the US is in relentless relative decline as an economic power in the world. The years after the Second World War (the years of the Marshall Plan), when the economies of most of its competitors had been wrecked while its own was growing strongly — were the noontide of American muscle. The Cold War, because its central narrative was that of a mortal threat from a Soviet giant of equal power, diminished the appearance of American strength, but the narrative was false. The collapse of the rival giant has exaggerated America’s apparent strength because it has so much more economic muscle than any single rival.

Of course we're in relative decline if you compare the US's status today with the US's status in 1945. That was because in 1945 we had the only functioning economy in the world. But, economically, the US is actually storming ahead much more rapidly than Europe is. We are still the innovators and there is no sign that we will stop being so anytime soon. And, since there's no real competition for the US in its role of world's leading nation, nobody is exaggerating America's strength except the paranoids on the European left.

But for many decades America’s share of the world’s economic output has been in decline. Think of a see-saw. America at one end is now easily outweighed by any substantial grouping at the other, and most of those powers are on friendly terms with each other. America’s modesty in 1945 understated its muscle, just as Bushite vanity overstates it today. He has over-reached. His country is overstretched, losing economic momentum, losing world leadership, and losing the philosophical plot. America is running into the sand.

That entire paragraph could be summed up as: "I would like to believe that the United States is weak. I will therefore reuse some lame metaphors to make it look like I have a case rather than, say, stating some facts. In addition, I do not like Bush personally so I will call him "vain" again." Thanks, Mr. Parris, for your opinion. We'll call you next time next time we want to hear it.

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