THERE IS a general consensus in the media that George Bush and Tony Blair entered 2004 in a much stronger position than seemed likely even a few weeks earlier.
The fundamental reason for this apparent shift is Saddam Hussein's capture, but the agreement announced with Libya just before Christmas also helped. The Libyan regime's declaration that it was now abandoning its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction seemed to vindicate the obsession with WMD that Blair restated during his photo opportunity in Basra. But Libya's programmes turned out, according to United Nation inspectors, to be pretty small beer.
Both Saddam's capture and the Libyan deal were at best propaganda victories for Washington and London. They didn't change the fundamental balance of forces. This was set out with admirable clarity in a two-part series in the Financial Times before Christmas called "The Dependent Superpower".
The first piece, by Martin Wolf, argued that American capitalism, although the chief agent of and beneficiary from economic globalisation, has also become more vulnerable as a consequence.
The US economy is much more heavily dependent on foreign trade than it was for most of the 20th century, and in particular on energy imports. As Wolf puts it, "In oil and gas the US appears to be sleepwalking into ever-greater reliance on some unstable suppliers around the world."
The US is also becoming more financially vulnerable. America imports considerably more goods and services than it exports. This trade gap is financed by huge foreign borrowing, particularly from the dynamic economies of East Asia. By the end of 2002 US net liabilities to the rest of the world had reached 25 percent of national income.
Wolf comments, "The era of the dollar standard may at last be nearing an end. Certainly exploding US liabilities to the rest of the world and Asian asset accumulation on the other side cannot continue indefinitely."
Of course, American financial and energy dependence is counterbalanced by the might of the Pentagon. Indeed, the best way of understanding the Bush administration's strategy is to see it as a way to use its military supremacy to entrench the global dominance of US capitalism.
But even here the war on terrorism has exposed the limits of American power.
The second piece in the Financial Times series highlights the danger of "'overreach'-that the US will take on too many commitments or find itself unable to withdraw from its many obligations".
The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and the confrontation with North Korea are already putting severe pressure on America's relatively small professional army. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says: "The US army could find some units deployed twice in a two to three year period. We don't know yet whether they can handle that. But by the time we have conclusive proof, they may have broken the army."
Hence the eagerness with which, after going it alone into Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration is now encouraging other right wing governments to supply occupation troops.
In the case of Japan's prime minister Junichiro Koizumi this is in defiance of the country's pacifist constitution. But the pressure on the overstretched American military is unlikely to relent any time soon.
Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker just before Saddam's capture, "Inside the Pentagon, it is now understood that simply bringing in or killing Saddam Hussein and his immediate circle will not stop the insurgency."
A military analyst working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad told Hersh, "Mid-ranking Ba'athists who were muzzled by the patrimonial nature of Saddam's system have now, with the disappearance of the high-ranking members, risen to control the insurgency."
On the ground the forces mounting resistance seem very diverse politically. The Pentagon's response, according to Hersh, is what one adviser calls "pre-emptive manhunting" modelled on the Israeli Defence Force's campaign of "targeted killings" and mounted by the kind of Special Forces unit that tracked down Saddam.
"We're going to have to play their game," a Coalition Provisional Authority adviser told Hersh. "Guerrilla versus guerrilla. Terrorism versus terrorism. We've got to scare the Iraqis into submission."
This language recalls other counter-insurgency wars-for example, in Algeria and Vietnam-where such tactics led to terrible atrocities and ultimate defeat for the occupier.
One thing shown by both the crowing over Saddam's capture and the ferocity with which the Pentagon is fighting the insurgents is that the Bush administration understands how high the stakes are.
Its own political survival and the future of American imperialism depend on what happens in Iraq. Iraq is likely to continue to dominate world politics in 2004.