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Death of the unipolar world

Zafar Bangash

History is both a teacher and a mirror. It teaches those prepared to learn its lessons and exposes those that harbour illusions of grandeur. The US refuses to learn from history because it has none; history has exposed US pretensions like no other power before. Who would have imagined barely 10 years ago that the self-proclaimed superpower and pretender to global leadership would be in such dire straits on the economic, political and military fronts? American apologists are quick to dismiss talk of US decline as the product of ill-informed opinion. America, they assert, is the leading economic and military power in the world. True, statistics support this argument. At $13 trillion, America’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is far greater than its nearest competitor. Similarly, the US military budget at $607 billion is larger than the next 100 countries’ budgets put together.

This, however, is a superficial look at global reality. After all, the Soviet Union was also a superpower armed with nuclear weapons and had the largest air force in the world when it invaded Afghanistan on December 27, 1979. Today, there is no Soviet Union on the world map. Who would have imagined 10 years ago the predicament the US faces today? It was the sole superpower and Western journalists fondly talked of a “hyper-power” and conferred such accolades as “President of the World” on the US president. American commentators triumphantly declared that just as the 20th century was theirs, so will be the next. The neo-conservatives (neo-cons) had declared even earlier in the “Project for the New American Century” that no rival power — friend or enemy — would be permitted to emerge to challenge US hegemony. The neo-cons also talked of waging multiple wars simultaneously, all in the quest to keep America number one.

The attacks of 9/11 were considered a godsend by the neo-cons to impose their will on the world. The Taliban were vanquished from Kabul without much of a fight. Iraq followed suit; Baghdad fell in a matter of weeks. Pax Americana dawned on the world with full fury and US rulers threatened to “fix” the others — Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, etc — that dared challenge US military might or question its right to launch pre-emptive strikes. Rulers around the world trembled at the thought of upsetting Washington and lined up to seek its favours. America, declared the neo-cons, had finally buried the ghost of Vietnam.

Then the resistance started to pick up momentum, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. Initially, the Iraqi resistance was dismissed, in the infamous words of the former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as the work of “Ba‘athist dead-enders”. Even when the late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Husain’s two sons — Udday and Qussay — were killed in July 2004 followed by Saddam’s televised arrest in December 2004, the resistance did not subside. It gained speed and soon the Americans were seeking alternative ways to deal with it. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the US and its so-called “coalition of the willing” have found the situation getting tougher and tougher. Afghanistan has been especially hard. The Americans no longer talk of victory, only “success”. That too is narrowly defined: “to prevent the Taliban from achieving their goal”, whatever that may be.

Both wars have exposed the hollowness of the neo-con strategy to bury the ghost of Vietnam. The wars have also bankrupted the US. The total cost will exceed $3 trillion, according to the Harvard economist,Joseph Stiglitz. US external debt stands at $11.2 trillion while its internal debt is $38 trillion. The bursting of various bubbles — dotcom, housing and the derivatives ponzi schemes — are so frequent that they have come to symbolize the US economy more than manufacturing. In fact, there is little manufacturing left in the US, decimated by the outsourcing tsunami in the relentless drive to maximize corporate and shareholder profits.

While American officials talk in optimistic tones about economic turn-around, most people faced with the grim reality of losing jobs, business shutdowns and losing homes because of their inability to make mortgage payments, do not believe this. For the first time in US history, millions of people are forced to live in tents; an estimated 45 million people do not have medical insurance and 40 million children live in poverty. Welcome to the first world’s third world: North America’s own version of apartheid South Africa.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 10

Dhu al-Hijjah 14, 14302009-12-01

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