LONDON — Embattled U.S. President George W. Bush has asked for new ideas to help him on Iraq and on how to disentangle from the Middle East morass. He will of course get plenty, but he needs to be very careful over what he chooses.
Whether the stream of new thoughts and suggestions come from enemies or friends, from triumphant Democrats or crestfallen Republicans, from the political left or right, from searing columnists or think-tank strategists, all Americans seem to be laboring under one fatal delusion: that America can decide — by its sheer military might and economic size — the course of Mideast events and influence world ability and development.
The U.S. establishment seems not to have absorbed a basic reality that those outside America can see so clearly: that power has passed from the great American Republic just as it once passed from Rome, from the Hapsburgs and from the British Empire, and that neither 15 carrier fleets, nor arsenals of missiles, nor all the resources of Yankee ingenuity can bring it back.
This is for two reasons. The first is that the age of the microchip has dispersed power and knowledge into a myriad of smaller centers, into both good and bad hands, in ways that American policymakers have evidently not grasped. Super-sophisticated weaponry, cyber-technology and total communication has given one small band or network of trouble-makers the power of whole armies. Small has become lethal while big has become ultra-vulnerable.
The second reason is that billions of highly motivated new capitalists have joined the global economy, bringing massive financial power and now political power to the rising giants of Asia and elsewhere. China has assumed the leadership role in Africa, holding its own summit of African leaders in Beijing.
Moscow has emerged as the new energy superpower. India is moving to the front of new technology. Japan is re-assuming its economic superpower status, and reaching for a more “assertive” role in the world. Latin America is moving out of the U.S. orbit.
These are the nations with which Washington will have to work on equal terms if it wants to protect its own interests. Some will prove intensely difficult, such as China; some will prove neutral but reluctant to be bossed about by highhanded American strategists telling them what to do or how to run their affairs. Some will be basically friendly to the United States but nervous about being branded as American lapdogs or poodles.
Foremost in the latter category is America’s traditional ally, Britain, which nowadays is almost alone as America’s steadfast friend, although increasingly uneasy about being tied to the policies of the Bush administration. Yet if the president is wise, this is the kind of source he should listen to for new ideas. So here are a few thoughts from a country that still admires the U.S. as a true home of liberty and enterprise.
The world is no longer run from Washington, or even from Washington and Brussels together. The language and rhetoric of American policy and intentions should reflect this new reality.
It is going to be essential to win not only the cooperation of Iraq’s surrounding neighbors for a peaceful transition there, such as Iran and Syria, but also the full support of the rising great powers of Asia, and of a resurgent Russia, generally at the United Nations and specifically in helping the reconstruction of a new Middle East.
This may require a wholly new approach to international supervision of nuclear developments. Has the time come for a system that facilitates, rather than checks, civil nuclear-power projects? And could an international and genuinely independent nuclear-fuel bank, making enriched uranium accessible to nation state customers, meet their growing needs? Above all, might this kind of arrangement satisfy Iran in a way that previous offers to help with fuel enrichment have not?
All these roads in the end lead back to the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is where America must look at itself and ask what it really wants. The key is for the outside powers, backed by American resources but not by America alone, to guarantee the security to which Israeli citizens have an undoubted right, but without sanctioning the repressive Israeli occupation or pulverizing invasion of surrounding territories.
All this requires the most intimate co-operation among a range of global powers, including Arab neighbors, Asian forces and European ones. Israel will just have to accept its final departure from the West Bank and the arrival of effective and massively resourced international guarantors.
In Israel itself there seems to be a growing body of opinion that recognizes this as the country’s best and only future. But the biggest change of heart has to begin in the U.S. There now has to be the fullest possible engagement of American policy brilliance and innovative resourcefulness in cracking the Israeli/Palestine problem.
Perhaps the best thought to offer this giant but wounded nation at a difficult time is that it is also in the whole world’s direct interest, barring a few misguided mavericks, to see America prospering, confident and exiting Iraq with dignity from a calmer Middle East, rather than damaged and dragged down in some post-Vietnam-like mood of introspection and humiliation.
This may be difficult medicine for many Americans to take. But it comes from friends — and just now America needs those badly.
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