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Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America's might is draining away

Matthew Parris

WHAT TIME is it for America? If the Boston Tea Party was first light and the Gettysburg Address dawn, where between the sunrise and sunset of empire is the United States now? To judge from his inauguration speech on Thursday, President Bush thinks it is about time for morning coffee: much to be proud of but big tasks — maybe the proudest of all — still ahead. To end tyranny on Earth is no small ambition.

Gerard Baker, the US editor of The Times, (“Don’t believe the doubters: America’s decline and fall is a long way off yet”) strikes a slightly more sanguine note. “A presidential inauguration is a chance for America to remind the world who is boss,” he smiles, “to demonstrate that the United States is the inheritor not only of Greece’s glory, but of Rome’s reach” — but Gerard would not himself go so far: he shares American anxieties about the rise of the Asian superpowers. He is confident, though, there are tremendous reserves of energy and potential still bubbling beneath the surface. “I would not bet on America’s eclipse just yet,” he concludes. For his America, I guess, it is around lunch. An afternoon’s work is still ahead.

I think it’s about half past four. For America-2005-Iraq, think of Britain-1899-Boer War. Ever-heavier burdens are being loaded upon a nation whose economic legs are growing shaky, whose hegemony is being taunted and whose sense of world mission may be faltering. “Overcommitted?” is the whisper.

Not that you would hear it in the din of drums and trumpets. More display is made in the spending of an inheritance than in its quiet accumulation, and the perfumed blossoms of July and August are heaviest after the nights have already begun to draw in. Like economic booms or summer solstices, empires have a habit of appearing at their most florid some time after their zenith has passed. Of the rise and fall of nations, history tends to find that the era of exuberance occurs when the underlying reasons for it are beginning to weaken. There is a time lag between success and swagger.

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his autobiography. It was at Miami airport, on August 17, 2004, as I stood musing for two hours in the aliens queue for fingerprints, while contradictory instructions were aimed at confused passengers by incompetent officials (and two security men started body-searching each other) that the idea that for America the rot was setting in first started to my mind.

In more ways than were betrayed by the battle between Lycra and human flesh being waged across the massive bums of the women I saw, America 2005 is overstretched. The neoconservative Right dreams about the prospect of a big new US military intervention in Iran, or perhaps Syria, but who stops to ask whether Washington has the troops for such an adventure? The aim would have to be regime change, and that needs ground forces. Simply “taking out” Iranian nuclear installations from the air would enrage and reinforce Iran’s Islamist reactionaries, and scupper whatever pro-Western reformist movement there may be.

The invasion would have to take place at the same time as maintaining the occupation of Iraq. This shows no signs of reducing its call on American forces, materiel or money. The Pentagon’s efforts may even have to be stepped up after the Iraq election: this newspaper among many has called for unstinting and open-ended US commitment to Iraqi security. Whether or not you believed Tony Blair when he claimed that American Forces were in urgent need of help from our Black Watch Regiment before Christmas, you can see that as deaths mount and anarchy continues in Iraq, no US president can be thinking in terms of deploying troops away from that country for operations elsewhere.

In 1995, 13.7 per cent of American troops were deployed abroad. Today it is some 27 per cent. America has more than 350,000 troops abroad. They are in (among other places) Ascension Island, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Egypt, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kosovo and South Korea. In at least a handful of these places it is fair to say that the country in question would collapse without them. I am no military analyst, but it seems reasonable to observe that in pursuit of US foreign and military policy, US defence forces are being pushed fairly hard. It is fanciful for the Left to fear, or the Right to hope, that at the flick of a switch President Bush can create large new arenas of American military engagement.

And, worryingly from the longer-term point of view, many of the more significant commitments among that list look like stalemates from the military point of view. No realistic president should see reason to hope that “mission accomplished” can soon be declared in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq. America (and often Britain) is bogged down in such places.

At the same time, I sense, America’s need for brute force as a substitute for moral suasion may be increasing. Mr Bush said “freedom” 27 times in his speech. John F. Kennedy could be more sparing with the word because the idea behind it shone so brightly for America then, and for the world. Across Africa in the past century, US foreign policy goals, which included the peaceful dissolution of the British Empire, were advanced without the firing of a shot — or the expenditure of more than the few dollars needed to fund American propaganda. Arguments are cheap, and America had the best arguments, the best visions, and the best tunes.

Deservedly or undeservedly, America has lost the tune. Just as happened for Britain during the Boer War, something has gone unaccountably off-key. We British won that South African war in the end by sheer, bloody force; and America will not be “defeated” in Iraq, or, I suppose, anywhere else. But as armaments are increasingly substituted for arguments, the strain grows. Eventually fatigue sets in.

There is a notion, as beloved of the European Left as of the yee-hah Right, that America’s pocket is bottomless, its Armed Forces countless, its weaponry infinite, and the only possible constraint upon its Government is the will of the people. Europeans speak as though for Washington cost is just not a consideration. This is not true of any empire or nation and has never been true of America; but it is less true today than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

For the truth is that the US is in relentless relative decline as an economic power in the world. The years after the Second World War (the years of the Marshall Plan), when the economies of most of its competitors had been wrecked while its own was growing strongly — were the noontide of American muscle. The Cold War, because its central narrative was that of a mortal threat from a Soviet giant of equal power, diminished the appearance of American strength, but the narrative was false. The collapse of the rival giant has exaggerated America’s apparent strength because it has so much more economic muscle than any single rival.

But for many decades America’s share of the world’s economic output has been in decline. Think of a see-saw. America at one end is now easily outweighed by any substantial grouping at the other, and most of those powers are on friendly terms with each other. America’s modesty in 1945 understated its muscle, just as Bushite vanity overstates it today. He has over-reached. His country is overstretched, losing economic momentum, losing world leadership, and losing the philosophical plot. America is running into the sand.