The Limits of US Power

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The world's only superpower combines military strength with economic and political weakness.

Is US power sweeping all before it? The rapid defeat of the Taliban regime is seen by supporters of US policy as a vindication of the Afghan war and a confirmation that US might is invincible. US leaders are hardly likely to disagree. It is only in legend that kings like Canute show the world the limits of their power. George Bush will not be found on a seashore commanding the sea to go back. He needs the world to believe that there are no limits to US power.

But the limits are there. They are real and they are much greater than many think. This is why there is so much nervousness in the US. The feeling of vulnerability is stronger perhaps than it has been since the Second World War. At the centre of the political debate has been an argument over how to deal with new security threats. The Bush administration has reacted in a conventional way by attacking a state. In the longer term it looks like 11 September will also boost traditional forms of military defence, to the satisfaction of Bush's backers in the military industrial complex. But insider critics argue that terror in the 11 September sense cannot be dealt with by the aerial bombing of a state. The malign genius of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Washington lay in the simplicity of the approach. Despite the claims that it needed a sophisticated network all it really seems to have required were a few dozen committed individuals. The US bombing of Afghanistan has not made it any more secure in these terms even from the Al Qaida groups given their Saudi recruitment base and the claims that there are cells in up to 40 countries. Nor has it made it secure from any other groups that might be tempted to emulate the 11 September bombers.

The war in Afghanistan has been a colonial war. The essence of all colonial wars is a huge imbalance of power. Specialists call this 'asymmetry'. Lyndon Johnson the US president in the 1960s, had a better expression when he likened the conflicts of small poor states with the US to a competition between a flea and an elephant.

Look at Afghanistan. The crude basis of power in the modern world is population and wealth. People are easy to measure and compare. The US has a population of 278 million - Afghanistan has around 20 million (give or take the many refugees). Wealth is much harder to compare, but say that of the US is $35,000 per head and Afghanistan $200 per head. The figures are approximate but they are good enough for a simple calculation. Multiply population by wealth and compare the two countries - you will have to get rid of some of the noughts or your calculator will overload. The answer comes out that the US - the richest large state in the world - is some 2,500 times more powerful than Afghanistan, one of the poorest.

At the time of the Kosovan war Clinton reportedly told Blair that 'we can bomb forever'. If a country like Afghanistan is the target, it can. It costs the elephant little to stamp its feet. Somalia, we are now told, is the next 'perfect target'. Wrecked by civil war, divided by factions looking for benefactors, it has a population of some 7-8 million (they haven't had a census for a quarter of a century). Its output can be generously guessed at $400-600 per head. The figures are slightly different to the Afghan ones. The point is its asymmetry - it's the elephant and the flea.

Smart bombs

US policy has been claimed as a victory for air power. What are now called 'stiletto wars' can now be fought with precision attacks. The military claims that whereas in the Gulf War only 3.5 percent of bombs were smart, in Kosovo the figure was 38 percent and in Afghanistan it has been 60 percent. The exact truth about the bombing remains unclear at the time of writing. The Taliban did not welcome western reporters. By bombing the Al-Jazeera news offices in Kabul the US achieved what it could not achieve by pressure. And at home, save for the activities of rogue journalists like Robert Fisk, there seems to have been considerable self censorship in response to informal pressures. This means that we have little sense of the scale of destruction. Deaths too must far outnumber those in New York. There are the direct casualties amongst Taliban troops and the casualties amongst civilians. Then there are the disease deaths amongst the hundreds of thousands of refugees as people fled. These last deaths will continue long after the bombing has stopped.

But because Afghanistan was so poor the US had total air supremacy from the very first minute. The forlorn sight of the odd and aimless tracer fire into the night skies of Kabul showed vividly that this was not Baghdad or Belgrade. But even so the Taliban areas had still to be taken by troops on the ground. If little US blood was spilled this was not true of its proxies. The same will be true of any other war. If there is no reliable proxy available then the US or Nato troops will have to fight themselves. It doesn't make sense therefore to draw too many conclusions about US power from this conflict - rather we have to start from where the US stands in the world as a whole.

There is an enormous contrast between the situation today and when the Second World War ended in 1945. It was then that the relative power of US capitalism was at its greatest. Germany and Japan had been defeated. The rest of Europe had been wrecked by war. But in the US the economy had boomed as never before. In 1945 fully half the world's industrial output was produced there. The US economy was capable of supporting a better equipped army than any other country. The US too had a nuclear monopoly for the only time in its history. No wonder that it was able to play such a decisive role in establishing the postwar order. But even then its power was not absolute. British leaders struggled to maintain their position, and in the Soviet Union Stalin was determined to carve out his own sphere of interest, helping to cause the Cold War as his more local vision clashed with the global interests of US capital.

When the Cold War ended the relative power of the US rose enormously. Today, for example, the US alone is responsible for 36 percent of all military spending and subsidises many of its allies. But the world of 1989-91 was not the world of 1945. Nor is the world of 2002. Too much else has changed and US policy makers know this.

It is important to remember that in the early 1990s US triumphalism over the ending of the Cold War was qualified by a sense of malaise about its own situation. This had three aspects. One was that US ascendancy against the other western powers was declining. The output of the EU had reached comparable levels to that of the US and with Japan it was some 50 percent more. The US had also emerged as the world's greatest debtor nation. Secondly, growth was slowing in the US as it was across the capitalist world. The slump part of the economic cycle accentuated this in the early 1990s. The third element was the sense of social unease about US society. A token but very visible reflection of this was Oxfam's 1991 announcement that it would now consider giving aid to people in the US itself. This sense of difficulty continued until the mid-1990s. But the boom of the late 1990s (and continuing problems in Japan) shifted the mood from one of fashionable 'declinism' to an even more fashionable 'triumphalism'. Yet though the pessimism of the declinists was exaggerated they had pointed to real trends and now that the bubble boom has burst, behind the chant of 'you are either with us or against us' an awareness of some of these weaknesses is re-emerging.

The inability of the US to control the new world disorder shows this. The coalition that has existed is fragile, and within it the different states jockey for position. One of the reasons that Blair's craven attitude to the US appalled so many right wing commentators is that has asked for nothing in return for his support whereas someone like Putin has been able to secure significant concessions and still act independently.

In much of the 'Third World' the attraction of radical Islam is another sign of the difficulties the US faces. Fundamentalism is a response to social changes that have taken place across the Islamic world as elsewhere in the last half century. These changes have created much more obviously urban and class based societies. In the 1950s and the 1960s discontent about the present and hope for the future was channelled in one of three directions. One was radical nationalism which many hoped would deliver vigorous and modern societies. Another was Soviet-style socialism which attracted members of Communist Parties. Both visions have now collapsed as viable alternatives. But it is not often appreciated that, especially after 1945, a third strand was goodwill towards the US which was seen as an anti-colonial ally not tainted by European ways. The US was prepared to offer carrots as well as sticks to attract new regimes towards it. But disillusionment followed as corrupt regime after corrupt regime was backed by the US and as it also invested so much of its prestige in the state of Israel.

Unfinished war

Fundamentalism has fed on the ideological vacuum that opened up but the grievances against the US are all real. Today few people love or admire the US as a state or its policies, even in regimes that are beholden to it. In its turn the US finds it hard to offer sufficient carrots to make them change their minds. This is why the stick is so much more obvious but with it comes renewed bitterness as the US moves from one disaster to another. The Gulf War was 'unfinished' - Iraq was left in ruins with its population suffering while they continued to be subject to more bombs. Bosnia was 'stabilised' as a largely impoverished protectorate. Even more so is this the case in Kosovo. Serbia suffered an estimated $27 billion of damage but when the Serbs overthrew Milosevic they were offered at best a few billion dollars of aid and loans tied in all sorts of ways. The allies of the US are no better treated. In the Kosovan War Nato bombing blocked the Danube. This is one of Europe's key transport systems. When the war ended the talk was that it would be reopened in weeks. Yet in the midst of the bombing of Afghanistan it was quietly announced that the Danube will possibly be reopened next year - at least 3 years after the end of the war. All of this indifference builds further resentment. This, of course, is the Achilles' heel of the US strategy in terms of the 'war against terror'.

Some US commentators are arguing that a virtue should be made of this situation and that the US should only wield the stick. 'We do wars,' said one analyst from the Brookings Institute, 'other people have to do the peacekeeping and the stabilisation.' Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post drew a no less brutal conclusion: 'Power is its own reward. Victory changes everything, psychology above all. The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power. Now is the time to use it to deter, defeat or destroy the other regimes in the areas that are host to radical Islamic terrorism.'

These ideas leave Blair and his cry that 'this time we will not walk away from Afghanistan' looking very stupid. Walking away, bar the odd token gesture is, of course, exactly what will happen so far as the mass of the Afghan population is concerned. It is a poor country and it will stay that way. But in another sense US weakness makes the situation more complicated. Ironically it is the US's pawns that have a sharper sense of the difficulties the US faces than some of those in the west. In the Cold War it used to be said that you could twist the US in your favour by playing up the threat of Soviet Communism. There was an old joke about the Third World leader who created a Communist Party in his country just to get more US aid. When the Cold War ended client regimes and groups ought to have been more dependent on the US. But they have quickly learned to play on its weakness.

Pawns in the game

Afghanistan illustrates this well. In early November 2001 Bush stood next to General Musharraf of Pakistan and assured him that 'we will encourage our friends to head south, across the Shomali plains, but not into the city of Kabul itself. And we believe we can accomplish our military missions by that strategy.' Yet when Kabul fell the Northern Alliance marched straight in. Then out of the sky 12 Russian transport planes arrived ahead of everyone else, established 'a humanitarian base' and took over the old Russian embassy. This was not supposed to happen. The Bush administration thought that these people knew their place. Nor were the massacres carried out by the forces of 'our friend' Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, part of the script. Even less was his refusal to have anything to do with the government formed under UN auspices.

But this is part of a pattern as the supposed pawns play the US at its own game. Look at the way that Sharon in Israel, despite his dependence on the US, has played the crisis. They were not part of the script. On a smaller scale look at the Balkans and Kosovo. The Kosovan War was supposed to stabilise the place. The KLA, in particular having got US support, were supposed to gratefully know their place. Least of all were they supposed to spawn the Albanian National Liberation Army that would destabilise neighbouring Macedonia. In August George Robertson denounced this group as 'a bunch of murderous thugs whose objective is to destroy a democratic Macedonia.' But the NLA went ahead anyway and lo and behold the US and the west were dragged into accommodating them. As Timothy Garton Ash put it, 'The lesson they learned from Kosovo was: if you play your cards right, a little well calculated violence achieves what years of non-violent politics had not'.

But the US is constrained in another way. Look at the situation within the country. Bush's opinion poll ratings may have shot up but the old problems remain. One US advertising writer recently wrote that the problems for 'Brand America' were not only foreign - they existed at home. 'As parts of America move forward confidently into a wealthier, more technologically literate future, the alienation of the "left behind" increases. These are the people who most resent "Brand America" - some enough to destroy.' This is why the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movement proved to have such resonance even in 'the heart of the beast'.

The selling of Bush's 'war against terrorism' has helped to paper over some of the cracks. Experience suggests that these effects will not be permanent, especially as the economy moves into deeper recession. Here is a corrupt and self interested oligarchy with blatant ties to business which effectively bought the election.

Again this is very different from the years after 1945. Then politics in the US, as in the rest of the advanced world, was held together by the long boom. But since the 1970s things have been very different. Don't take my word - go to World Factbook which the CIA helpfully has on the intemet. 'Since 1975', it says, 'practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20 percent of households.' This is an astonishing admission though one that is well known to anyone who looks at modern US capitalism. For a quarter of a century in the supposedly classless society built upon a rising standard of living it is only a minority who have benefited even on the official data. The CIA offers the standard explanation: 'The onrush of technology largely explains the gradual development of a "two-tier labour market" in which those at the bottom lack the education and the professional technical skills of those at the top and, more and more, fail to get comparable rises, health insurance coverage, and other benefits.' A moment's reflection will show that this doesn't work. The US may be a 'two tier' economy but the problem is not so much an underclass at the very bottom - it's the 80 percent of the population who have failed to see the benefits of a quarter century of growth. Analysing whether there has been any trickle down below this top 20 percent is complex but it doesn't alter the essential 80:20 contrast. The 'American dream' is the preserve of the few not the many.

And at the very bottom it is perhaps farther away than ever. While the top 10 percent of households take 30.5 percent of consumption, the bottom 10 percent have a mere 1.8 percent. It is no wonder then that in this land of wealth and opportunity life expectancy is 12th in the world and infant mortality a disgraceful 30th. No wonder too that during the 1990s the numbers of Americans without health insurance rose from 35 to 42.5 million. And no wonder either perhaps, that unlike in the boom years when there were positive social policies, the biggest social policy innovation has been to boost prison numbers to around 2 million (they were 330,000 in 1960). The US with 5 percent of the world's population now has 25 percent of its prisoners.

All of this creates new opportunities and new challenges for the left. The building of a strong socialist movement depends on both political and industrial challenges to capitalism. But in the shorter run these do not necessarily knit together. At the moment the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement is on the rise whereas battles over workplace issues are often more difficult. The worst thing we could do in this situation is to exaggerate the power of the enemy in the sphere where we are making real headway. But that is exactly the direction in which dangerous delusions about US power might take us.