WHAT A difference a year makes. In the aftermath of 11 September last year, the world's ruling classes rallied in solidarity with the United States. 'We are all Americans,' declared the Parisian daily Le Monde. Contrast the situation today. As the leading figures in George W Bush's administration prepare to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein, they find themselves largely isolated internationally.
Their most loyal ally, Tony Blair, is himself very isolated domestically. Blair aside, in Britain only the Tories - still objects of general derision and contempt - wholeheartedly support an attack on Iraq. Last weekend foreign secretary Jack Straw tried to unite the European Union around a policy of calling for the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq as a prelude to military action.
But a few days earlier US vice-president Dick Cheney specifically rejected such an option. Cheney is the leader of the Washington hawks, who include defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. They advocate the strategy of what has been called 'pre-emptive retaliation' that was outlined by Bush himself in a speech at West Point in May. But they face growing opposition within the ruling Republican Party.
It comes from leading figures in the administration of George Bush Sr, notably James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, successive Secretaries of State between 1989 and 1993, and Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security assistant. Baker is an especially important figure. He is a clever Texan lawyer who played a leading role in Ronald Reagan's administrations during the 1980s before becoming the elder Bush's top adviser.
Baker also headed up the legal battle that got Bush Jr into the White House after the disputed 2000 presidential election.
So these critics aren't marginal liberals. The debate between them and Cheney and Co is about the best strategy for maintaining the US as the dominant capitalist power in the 21st century. The hawks argue from a perception less of American strength than of potential weakness.
They fear long term threats to US power - notably from China, which can contend for dominance in Asia if its present rapid economic growth continues for another decade or so. From this perspective, the US's present military pre-eminence opens a window of opportunity. The conquest of Iraq would not only remove an irritant and increase US leverage within the Middle East.
It would also warn off potential challengers like China and Russia. But for Baker - and no doubt also the current Secretary of State, Colin Powell, another veteran of the elder Bush's administration - a unilateral US attack on Iraq would make the situation worse rather than better. In the first place, even if it succeeded it would face the problem that led them, along with Bush Sr, to leave Saddam in place after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
Without Saddam's brutal rule to hold it together, Iraq, a highly fragmented society, might disintegrate, leaving Iran as the strongest regional power. Secondly, an Anglo-American war against Iraq would destabilise the West's leading allies in the Arab world.
One of them, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, said last week that it would lead to 'chaos happening in the region. Not one Arab leader would be able to control the angry outburst of the masses.'
Thirdly, the critics offer as their model the 1991 Gulf War, when the US led a large coalition of states, including a number of Arab regimes and Washington's main European allies, against Iraq. So Baker and his co-thinkers don't necessarily reject the hawks' objective of achieving 'regime change' in Iraq through military action.
They are critical rather of the prevailing strategy, and argue that US global power depends on coalition-building as well as brute military force. The problem is that Cheney and his allies positively make a virtue of acting unilaterally.
Comparing Bush Jr to Winston Churchill, Rumsfeld said last week that 'it's less important to have unanimity than it is to be making the right decision and doing the right thing, even though at the outset it may seem lonesome.' Bush and his advisers have painted themselves into a corner. If they back off now, this will be a humiliating blow from which the administration may never recover.
But if they press ahead, then all of what the critics predict - and maybe worse - is likely to happen. In one sense then the hawks are right. On the decisions that Bush and his team take in the next few weeks hangs the fate of US imperialism for many years to come.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks - phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com