By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, May 19, 2005
President Bush and Vice President Cheney fight an inexorable tide that pushes their goal of restoring presidential and national power farther away even as they accelerate their efforts to reach it.
They swim against a tide of the global fragmentation of power in all its forms -- economic, political and military. More nations today possess the ability to make and sell inexpensive, good-quality shirt buttons than ever before. The same is true for costly but workable nuclear weapons.
Located at the opposite ends of any spectrum of importance, the spread of consumer goods and of history's deadliest weapons underlines the need to update our notions of power, whether we are ordinary shoppers or strategists working in the White House.
Thirty years ago Americans fantasized (in horror or delight) about U.S. troops occupying oil fields in the Middle East to guarantee low-cost energy. Today U.S. troops fight in Iraq -- but China and India determine the record levels of world oil prices more than the White House does. The galloping consumption and fierce competition for supplies and future contracts by the two Asian giants make supply and demand dance on a knife's edge.
Whether or not you believe that Bush and Cheney went into Iraq in a bid for direct control of oil supplies -- and I do not -- it is now unlikely that what they accomplish there before leaving office will much affect global petroleum markets. The legal framework, physical security and infrastructure repair that oil companies will need to function in Iraq take much longer to put into place.
In any event, any freely elected government of Iraq would fall into line with other OPEC members to maximize oil revenue. The spread of democracy Bush champions in that region is also a spread of popular pressure on rulers to manage resources purely for local, not foreign, benefit.
Oil-producing countries detonated the dispersal of political and economic power by seizing control of ownership or production of their petroleum reserves in the 1970s. Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda -- an indirect creation of the oil revenue harvested by Saudi Arabia's royal family -- then showed on Sept. 11, 2001, that governments no longer possessed a monopoly on mass destruction.
Bush had come to office impressed by Cheney's oft-voiced concern that they needed urgently to restore power and prestige drained from the White House since Watergate. The horrors of Sept. 11 made the restoration of American power in the world a parallel defining theme for the Bush presidency.
This reflex is understandable, even commendable, to a point. But over time it creates its own obstacles. Every conflict, whether with Senate Democrats over judges or Jacques Chirac over Iraq, gradually becomes a contest of wills that has to be won in power terms. The abstraction of power swiftly overwhelms the specifics and merits of the problem.
The Democrats, Chirac and many others obliged by responding in kind, offering vague theories on "soft power" or "multi polarity" that missed the point of the rapidly changing international environment as much as the drive for restoration of a chimerical American dominance did.
The withering of the powers of nation-states, and virtually every national leader, under the pressures of globalization is more of a mixed blessing than the proponents of soft power or multipolarity acknowledge. And the consequences of fragmentation are also far more difficult to resolve than the restoration effort assumes.
Nuclear proliferation has been pushed significantly forward by a privatized, for-profit international network ostensibly (and implausibly) run by a single Pakistani scientist, A.Q. Khan. Yet the Bush administration, while proclaiming that proliferation is the greatest danger in the world, lets other concerns take priority.
The White House fails to put effective pressure on Pakistan to let American investigators question Khan. Nor will Islamabad punish him for what by Pakistan's own account should be classed as crimes against humanity. Washington has also made an overly generous plea bargain arrangement with a Khan client, Libya's Moammar Gaddafi.
China and South Korea similarly cannot be convinced that Kim Jong Il's possession of nuclear weapons is a greater threat to them than a collapse of the North Korean regime would be. They rationalize their fears by claiming that Kim has no nuclear weapons, or that he won't use them if he does.
Much of the conflict and confusion apparent in international and American politics today comes from fearful, at times almost panicky, reactions to the migration of power away from national leaders and its fragmentation at national levels. (This is true in Beijing and Moscow as well as in Washington and Paris.) What our leaders have to fear is fear itself. Fear will inhibit the vision and judgment needed to adjust and rebalance power on a global and equitable basis.