Tuesday, January 27, 2004

the man behind the curtain
In the New Yorker, Josh Marshall ruminates on matters imperial.

“Bill Clinton was actually a much more effective imperialist than George W. Bush,” Chalmers Johnson writes darkly. “During the Clinton administration, the United States employed an indirect approach in imposing its will on other nations.” That “indirect approach” might more properly be termed a policy of leading by consensus rather than by dictation. But Johnson is right about its superior efficacy. American power is magnified when it is embedded in international institutions, as leftists have lamented. It is also somewhat constrained, as conservatives have lamented. This is precisely the covenant on which American supremacy has been based. The trouble is that hard-line critics of multilateralism focussed on how that power was constrained and missed how it was magnified.

This strikes me as exactly right. At the time, I thought of Clinton as a kind of updated Warren Harding for an updated Warren Harding era, a party prez for post-Communism. But this is worth re-examining in the light of the rise of the neo-cons and the general preference of the current admninistration for reliance on military power as the means of preserving and extending the status of the US status as numero uno.

Does the US have more power now than during the Clinton era, in the sense of greater influence over the world and its direction? Despite the crowing over Gaddafi's admission from the cold, I'd say that the answer is overwhelmingly no, for several reasons. Firstly, as Marshall discusses, the threat of power in itself creates diplomatic opposition. In the run up to the Iraq war, the US tried to isolate France by leaning heavily on the non permanent members of the UN security council to support its invasion plans. The attempt had to be abandoned after none of them would go along. It seems odd that the greatest power the world has ever seen couldn't secure the compliance of countries like Cameroons and Angola. But given a change of political fashion they too could be a target for regime change, so their reluctance to endorse military pre-emption was understandable, to say the least. The first effect of making war a central plank of foreign policy is to weaken the US's hand diplomatic hand multilaterally.

Well, who cares? The US can lean on any individual state it wants, and as we saw in Iraq, kick it to pieces. But that's the second problem. The US has kicked to pieces two failed states - Iraq and Afghanistan - and now appears to have run out of troops to take on any more. And what's more, they are not in full control of what they have.

But what of the cowering Gaddafi? The fact is that Libya has been trying to mormalise it's diplomatic relations with the West for years. And in return for handing over a few centrifuges, Gaddafi is now effectively guaranteed a lifetime tenure as Libya's tyrant. Couple this with the decisive US tilt towards China in the dispute over the Taiwan independence referendum and you can see just how weak the US's diplomatic position is. They've exchanged a general pervasive hegemony over the direction of the world for control of whatever happens to be currently in their gunsights.

There was something vague and non-committal about the way in which Clinton used US military power, and his opponents were naturally quick to accuse him of weakness and vacillation. But in retrospect it seems judicious. US power is amplified by being the sparing use of military force. It adds a kind of negative luster to US policy as a whole. In the light of what the US can do to you, what it can do for you seems all the more generous. Now they've done their worst, and the Taliban and Iraqi guerillas are saying: is that all you've got?