The United States is rediscovering the 20th century. Old-fashioned imperialism, dressed up as before with false justifications, meets determined resistance. Indeed, the level of losses seen in April is straining the capacity of the small U.S. force in Iraq. The main illusion that has brought the United States to this pass is that there has been a high-technology “revolution in military affairs” that now enables the United States to secure a zone with far fewer soldiers. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his staff, not the military itself, fell under this illusion.
While the occupation of Iraq is losing popularity in the United States, the American establishment is not yet ready to withdraw. Newspaper editorials are throwing up fanciful scenarios as excuses for continuing the occupation. President Bush is in a no-win situation. If he pulls out of Iraq or cedes a lot of ground, as he has done in Fallujah, he will pay a price among voters. But if American blood is flowing onto Iraqi soil on Election Day, it would be a fundamental unfulfillment of expectations Americans had at the time of the invasion.
America is indeed the sole superpower, and will remain so for many years even after a defeat in Iraq. Its power lies in its predominant influence over the globe as a whole, and not in the conquest of particular regions. The United States will not make a full recovery from the Iraq blunder merely by terminating it, but it can afford to lose a good deal of its influence and still remain a global hegemon. Hopefully, America will learn the right lessons that will forestall arbitrary aggression for some time.
The real security problem America faces is from the al-Qaeda network. Even a Madrid-like attack on American soil can do a great deal of damage to the texture of American life. After the 9/11 attack, President Bush decided to pursue al-Qaeda half-heartedly, and to open up a new front in Iraq. A U.S. defeat in Iraq would indeed enhance the credibility of al-Qaeda. But continued fighting in Iraq would do even more to promote the growth of the al-Qaeda network. The weakening of America’s position in diplomacy and world public opinion does subtle damage to the campaign against al-Qaeda. Although the terrorist network has not been able to replicate the spectacular attack of 9/11, the Madrid attack was effective due to the lowered popular regard for America in Spain. Even if the new Spanish government remains as committed as the previous one to fighting terrorism, the perceived effectiveness of the Madrid attack fortifies al-Qaeda.
The most fundamental changes that will transform American life do not involve Iraq or al-Qaeda. These are taking place in Asia, particularly in China and India. The rise of productive talent across Asia is creating a geography and demography of competence quite different from anything the world has seen in the last quarter millennium. There is every reason to expect this trend to continue, albeit in fits and starts.
America faces two challenges. One is to preserve and improve its standard of living and quality of life. The second is to maintain its margin of supremacy in economics, technology, and other major fields. There are grounds for optimism regarding the first challenge, but not the second. Computer scientists being trained in U.S. universities in international project management are finding it easy to get jobs. American society can easily adapt to globalization. On the other hand, American supremacy arose in a world under imperialism. The end of imperialism created an opening for the colonized to advance. The start has been halting, but it is gathering momentum. The United States has already lost its central position in Asian trade as China leads a new trade boom in Asia, pulling even the giant economy of Japan along. A Chinese crash is conceivable, but the reasons being advanced by some to fear one now have been present for over a decade. The massive increases in productivity that come from training peasants to become industrial workers are overwhelming the numerous flaws in the Chinese economic and political systems.
The present moment is nonetheless one of great opportunity for the United States. It can negotiate global institutions and agreements that will endure even after it has become difficult for America alone to enforce them. The Clinton administration understood the importance of building institutions, but it was committed to American hegemony. Bush has done significant damage to global institutions in his first term. A Kerry administration presents an only slightly better alternative. Even if Bush and the American political establishment as a whole were able to evade reality in Iraq for some time, any administration that comes next will be forced to come to terms with the reality of a new Asia.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches international relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.