Friday, May 16, 2008

America's decline: a self made disaster

In many articles and in book after book American "declinists" nowadays tend to portray America's reduced stature as a largely natural phenomenon. Never mind that on the eve of the Bush presidency we were still seen as the most powerful nation in the history of the world. Decadent powers always wane in influence, and it seems we've just been doing a lot of waning very quickly. As other countries around the world partook of the ideas we pressed on them in the post-cold war era—free markets, democracy—they started to prosper and catch up to us. Meanwhile we grew fatter (literally) and more spoiled. It was all very organic.

What was most unnatural of all about what we Americans did to ourselves was that we missed the grand opportunity staring us in the face. September 11 was an awful day, but in strategic terms it had a silver lining. The sympathy that the rest of the world sent our way post-9/11 was not just good fellowship, it was a recognition that virtually every country around the globe faced the same kind of threat. This was an extraordinary chance for American leadership to renew itself at a time when the international community was adrift. After the cold war some pundits were questioning whether the "West" would long survive the extinction of its main enemy, Soviet communism. Foreign leaders had the usual doubts about America, but even so polls still showed a remarkable degree of global consensus in favor of a one-superpower (read: American-dominated) world. Most U.S. presidents after 9/11 would have seized the chance to reaffirm America's role in overseeing the international system by achieving a global consensus. Terrorism of the Al Qaeda variety provided a "natural bonding agent" for this system, as the Yale scholar Charles Hill (later Rudy Giuliani's presidential adviser) said.

That is why everyone was with the United States when it invaded Afghanistan and almost no one was when it turned to Iraq. Indeed, there is not a government anywhere in the world—not even the Muslim countries—that wasn't hoping we'd clean out Afghanistan, that last refuge of Al Qaeda.
Imagine what the payoff in prestige it might have been had Bush brought into the international community a pariah country that had thwarted two previous imperial powers—Britain and Russia—in the last two centuries. Fixing Afghanistan was always going to be, even under the best circumstances, brutally hard. But contrary to what you might hear, it was possible, had we stayed focused. The Afghans themselves, in stark contrast to the pent-up Iraqis, were so desperately tired of 23 years of civil war that most of them welcomed us with open arms, with virtually every warlord on sale at knockdown prices. (As Ismail Qasimyar, head of the loya jirga commission, told me when I was there in 2002, war-weary Afghans saw that "a window of opportunity had been opened for them" and that Afghanistan had become "a baby of the international community.") What an exercise in the judicious use of our great power that would have been, and what a trophy to place on the shelf after Germany and Japan following World War II! America would have been widely admired.

Instead precisely the opposite happened. From the moment Rumsfeld decided to confine ISAF—the international security force—to Kabul in early 2002 after the Taliban fled, the opportunity to save Afghanistan was lost. Year by year, inattention turned Afghanistan into what Jim Dobbins, Bush's former special envoy to Kabul, told me was "the most underresourced nation-building effort in history."

On the economic front there was a similar abdication of responsible governance related to deficits and the mortgage disaster. Imbued with the simplistic idea that free markets meant unregulated markets, national and state regulators paid almost no attention to the rampant selling and securitization of bad loans since 2000—chief among them the once sainted Fed chairman Alan Greenspan—despite pleas for help from the local and state officials. Now America's economy is in the process of "de-leveraging"—shrinking in borrowing power and thereby reducing its impact around the world as foreign funds pull their investments from dollars or redirect them into euros or "baskets" of several currencies. As European and Asian financiers and economic officials have come to learn the truth about the subprime debacle, they've become leery about ever trusting Wall Street's or Washington's advice again. Yet had anyone in Washington been paying serious attention, the worst of the credit crunch—and loss of prestige—could have been avoided.

This is not pipe-dreaming; it is the history that easily might have been.

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