Ten years ago, bloated with a euphoric belief in its own omnipotence, the United States under George W Bush was preparing to invade Iraq. Where does US power stand today?
The commonplace view is that the US has been humbled and is in terminal decline. There was a discussion on
Radio 4’s Today programme last week about whether the US decision to stay out of the war in Mali when France acted is a sign of American enfeeblement.
This view isn’t completely wrong. Some people even on the left don’t recognise the scale of the geopolitical defeat the US suffered in Iraq.
Yes, the famous “surge” in US troops in 2007-8 and more importantly the political campaign to play on the Sunni Arab minority’s fear of Shia domination and to buy off the moderate wing of the Sunni insurgency allowed the US to restabilise the situation in Iraq.
But the US has been politically marginalised in Iraq. Its sometime client government under Nouri al-Maliki refused to concede the Status of Forces Agreement that would have placed US troops above the law. So Barack Obama’s administration was forced into a much larger scale pullout at the end of 2011 than it had planned.
In Asia the US was able to compensate for its defeat in Vietnam thanks to the 1965 counter-revolution that had already destroyed the Indonesian Communist movement and to its alliance with the rising economic powers of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
But the balance of power in the Middle East has been shifting steadily against Washington. Maliki has aligned Iraq with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This alignment has been weakened by the Syrian revolution.
But the US lost a key ally when the Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown two years ago and has now to deal with a much more assertive Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
These developments have been accompanied by the Obama administration’s decision to shift its resources and attention eastwards to address the challenge posed by China’s rapidly expanding economic and military capabilities.
Hillary Clinton said just before she retired last week as US secretary of state, “We will continue to welcome China’s rise—if it chooses to play a constructive role in the region.”
The implied warning is clear enough. Clinton worked assiduously to play on regional rivalries and project the US as the protector of states frightened by the expansion of Chinese power.
The US continues to have a vast military superiority over China. China is now converting a middle-range Ukrainian aircraft carrier for its use. The US has 11 carrier battle groups, each with terrifying firepower at its command.
The neoconservative historian Aaron Friedburg argues, in his book A Contest for Supremacy on the Chinese threat, that Beijing may soon have enough missile strength to make the cost of a US effort to defend Taiwan unacceptably high.
But the sea lanes on which China depends for its manufactured exports and its imports of food, raw materials and high-tech products will be dominated by the US Navy for decades.
So it’s true that the US is taking a lower profile in the Middle East. George Friedman of the intelligence company Stratfor argues that this is a necessary corrective to Bush’s adventurism (which, incidentally, he supported at the time).
He says that in Obama’s decision to let the French do the heavy lifting in Mali, “We can see the American system stabilise itself by mitigating the threats that can’t be eliminated and refusing to be drawn into fights it can let others handle.”
American imperialism has been weakened by defeat in Iraq and by the Afghan quagmire. But it is very far from finished. The US ruling class sits at the very centre of the global capitalist system.
This makes it particularly vulnerable to the systemic crisis of the past five years.
But this central role and the resources that American capitalism still commands mean that it remains the dominant imperialist power.