[Paleopsych] Matthew Parris: Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America's might is draining away
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Tue Feb 8 21:32:34 UTC 2005
Matthew Parris: Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America's might is
January 22, 2005
[I'm taking my annual Lenten break from forwarding articles again this
year. It's a vice to spend so much time doing this. So I'll be off the air
for forty days and forty nights from Ash Wednesday until Easter.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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