[Paleopsych] Matthew Parris: Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America's might is draining away

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Matthew Parris: Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America's might is 
draining away
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
    such places.

    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
    World War.

    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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