There is a puzzling contradiction in contemporary discussion of American power. The theme that the US is in decline, being elbowed out of the way by China, is well established in mainstream discourse.
It is being strongly played on at the moment by the Republicans, as a way of bashing Barack Obama. Mitt Romney’s disastrous venture to London was an ill-fated effort in this direction.
Condoleezza Rice, George Bush’s last secretary of state, pushed much the same story in a piece in the Financial Times on Friday last week: “The American people have to be inspired to lead again. They need to be reminded that the US is not just any other country… Failure to do so would leave a vacuum, likely filled by those who will not champion a balance of power that favours freedom.”
Invading Iraq was intended to secure that “balance of power that favours freedom”. Maybe there is nostalgia on the wilder shores of the Republican Party for this kind of imperialist adventurism, but it exists nowhere else.
Yet sections of the left who set their faces most firmly against Bush’s “war on terror” seem to believe not only that the US actually won in Iraq but that it always wins. One version of this belief was expressed about Iraq by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine.
She argued that, for all the chaos and carnage that the invasion and occupation of Iraq caused, they were a great success for American “disaster capitalism”. In other words, firms like Blackwater and Halliburton made a fortune out of Iraq.
But this kind of analysis confuses the part and the whole. Healthy profits for Republican-aligned US companies were only a by-product of the conquest of Iraq. The main aim was politically to transform the Middle East by entrenching the US military grip on the region and using a pliant regime in Iraq to create counterparts elsewhere.
The Maliki government in Iraq is a pretty nasty affair. But it forced the US to withdraw its combat forces from Iraq and has aligned itself geopolitically with the Islamic Republican regime in Iran, to the extent of backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This was not the plan.
The region is being politically transformed, but by a wave of popular revolutions that began by taking out two of the most pro-Western regimes in the Arab world—Ben Ali’s in Tunisia and Mubarak’s in Egypt.
But this is where a kind of left fatalism kicks in. Those who subscribe to it may concede that the US suffered initial setbacks. Yet they argue that it is regaining control—by co-opting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, orchestrating the Nato intervention in Libya, and engineering the overthrow of Assad in Syria.
This view edits out the profound contradictions in the situation. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has to engage in a complex balancing act. It seeks simultaneously to cultivate its relationship with the US and the Egyptian military while maintaining its popular base.
But the view also attributes to the US a level of control that simply doesn’t exist. The Libyan intervention was a successful improvisation by Western powers in a comparatively favourable situation. A weak and fragmented opposition was fighting a long-range war where air power could quite easily tilt the balance.
Syria is quite a different kettle of fish. The US would like to use military pressure on the ground by the Free Syrian Army to broker a compromise between the more respectable opposition forces and elements of Assad’s regime. But the resistance on the ground remains very diverse and driven primarily by highly localised political mobilisations.
Although weakened, the US remains the world’s biggest economic and military power. But it certainly isn’t omnipotent.
Maybe it will get its way in Syria. But this is only one among a spectrum of possibilities. It is the widespread left assumption in the inevitability of American triumph that is strange at a time when everyone else thinks US power is waning.