How a superpower lost its stature

By Michael Lind

Financial Times

Published: May 31 2004

The debacle in Iraq has discredited the American neoconservative dream of a benevolent US e mpire, freed from the petty restraints of multilateral diplomacy and international law. But the neoconservative vision is not the only dream that has died in the rubble of Falluja and torture cells of Abu Ghraib prison. What until recently was the alternative endorsed by many Democrats and some centrist Republicans - US world leadership exercised through multilateral security institutions - can also now be included in the collateral damage done by George W. Bush's war in Iraq.

Since the cold war, many American neoliberals - sometimes described as "humanitarian hawks" or "muscular internationalists" - have supported a highly interventionist US military policy. Unlike the neoconservatives, however, the neoliberals believed the US should pursue ambitious programmes of global reform by means of the United Nations and Nato - not in spite of them. The first Gulf war and the Clinton-led Nato intervention in the Balkans provided models for those who sought to combine multilateral diplomacy with unipolar power.

While neoconservatives have focused on "rogue states" such as Iraq, neoliberals have seen opportunities for muscular multilateralism in "failed states" such as Liberia. They hoped that US-dominated international protectorates could provide law and order until such societies could be rebuilt. Some suggested the establishment of a UN-Nato protectorate in Palestine in the period between an Israeli withdrawal and the formation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state.

The idea was promising: American power in the service of multilateral legitimacy, rather than American power without multilateral legitimacy or multilateral legitimacy without American power. Tragically, this alternate strategy for the US is now moot. Mr Bush, in discrediting his own neoconservative strategy, has unwittingly destroyed any possibility that a successor administration would adopt muscular multilateralism on a large scale. The reason is simple: neoliberalism, like neoconservatism, depended on the mystique of American power.

The American mystique always had two components: material and moral. The mystique of US material power was the first to be destroyed unintentionally by this administration. After 1989, the argument that America was an awesome superpower similar to ancient Rome, erroneous though it was, arguably served the US and its allies well. Ironically, it was a neoconservative-led war that refuted neoconservative claims about US power. Even with the help of allies, the US has not been able to impose countrywide order in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lacking the troops to do so, the Pentagon turned to private contractors for basic US military functions, including the interrogation of prisoners of war. Some Rome; some empire.

Even more important to the mystique of American power was the moral element. The dark side of US history - including the treatment of the Indians, slavery and segregation - has not been forgotten by the world. Still, in the eyes of many, the US was the liberal, democratic superpower that opposed the fascist and communist empires. Now, the image of America the liberator has been replaced by the image of America the occupier and America the torturer. The atrocities at Abu Ghraib can no longer be dismissed as isolated incidents in light of accumulating evidence that the Bush administration either instituted or permitted tortures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and perhaps on US soil.

The horrors that we know about, and those about which we have yet to learn, are even more fatal to the neoliberal project than to its neoconservative rival. After all, the neoconservatives are willing to invade countries without permission either of locals or of allies. The neoliberals, however, want US troops to be invit ed as part of multinational forces. What population now will want US soldiers in their country - even as members of a multilateral UN or Nato force? And how many US allies will risk being tainted by association with US soldiers? Without US forces doing the heavy lifting in UN or Nato interventions, the ambitious neoliberal strategy of muscular internationalism becomes impossible.

Then there are failed states, the subject of so much neoliberal strategic thought in the 1990s. Iraq has proven that Washington does not know how to bring order to anarchic societies.

The implications of Mr Bush's inadvertent destruction of the American mystique have yet to sink into America's progressive internationalists. Many hawkish neoliberals hope that if John Kerry is elected, Europeans, Arabs and others will let bygones be bygones. If only it were so. A new administration could do much to repair the damage that Mr Bush and his team have done to America's reputation. But it will take a generation or more to rehabil itate America's image.

The spring of 2004 may prove to be a turning point not only in the history of America but also in that of the world. Until recently, Bush critics could hope the Iraq war would be an unfortunate but minor episode ahead of a long period of benevolent US global hegemony. Now that America's reputation for benevolence and irresistible power has been severely damaged, the US will be forced to settle for a far more modest role in the world than that sought by both neoliberals and neoconservatives. Whether Mr Bush is re-elected or not, his legacy is already apparent.

The writer is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and director of the American Strategy Project