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A Nadir of U.S. Power

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, October 23, 2006

It's not exactly morning in America.

In Iraq, things get ever uglier, and the old remedy of extra troops now seems tragically futile. The Bush team has recently tried putting thousands of additional soldiers into Baghdad, and the result after two months is that violence there has increased.

Iraq is often seen as a special Rumsfeldian screw-up. But in Afghanistan, the Bush team quickly handed off to a model pro-Western leader backed by a broad NATO coalition. And what are the results there? The government is wobbling, warlords run drugs and the pro-al-Qaeda Taliban have 4,000 to 5,000 active fighters in the country.

It's not just military efforts that are faltering. Five years ago, President Bush launched an experiment in tough-talk diplomacy, warning foreign leaders that they must be with us or against us in the war on terrorism. At first this yielded at least one achievement: Pakistan sent troops for the first time into its wild border regions to root out Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. But that success has now gone into reverse. Pakistan recently withdrew its soldiers, in effect ceding the border territory to the radicals.

It would be nice if this merely proved that tough talk can backfire. But traditional diplomacy is faring no better. In North Korea and Iran, the United States has tried every diplomatic trick to prevent nuclear proliferation, making common cause with Western Europe, Russia, China and Japan, and wielding both sticks and carrots. The result is failure: North Korea has tested a nuke and Iran still presses on with its enrichment program.

A few years ago, the collapse of Russia's currency triggered a furious debate in Washington over who lost Russia. Now Russia's pro-Western voices are being snuffed out, and Americans are so inured to the limits of their power that they don't even pose that question. A crusading journalist has been killed, and on Thursday Vladimir Putin silenced Human Rights, Amnesty International and more than 90 other foreign organizations. Everyone accepts that there's not much the West can do about this.

In Somalia, a Taliban-style group of Islamic militants has seized part of the country. One of its commanders is said to be sheltering terrorists who blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania: A brand-new terrorist haven may be emerging. Again, it is assumed that the world's sole superpower can't do much but watch.

Three long years ago, the Bush administration described the killing in Darfur as genocide. You might think that an impoverished African state that can't control its own territory would be a pushover. But the Bush administration has tried sanctions, peace talks and United Nations resolutions. Sudan's tin-pot dictator thumbs his nose at Uncle Sam and dispatches more death squads.

When historians analyze the decline of empires, they tend to point to economic frailties that undercut military vigor. Well, the United States has several economic frailties and can't seem to address any of them.

Every honest politician knows that entitlement spending on retirees is going to bust the budget. But since the failure of Bush's proposed Social Security overhaul last year, nobody is doing anything about it.

Every honest politician knows that we need to quit gobbling carbon. But higher gas taxes are seen as a political non-starter on both sides of the political spectrum.

Every honest politician knows that support for globalization is fraying because of rising inequality at home. But how many of them stand up for policies that could reduce inequality without harming growth -- most obviously, tax reform? You don't hear anybody on the left or right denouncing the absurdity that more than half the tax breaks for homeownership flow to the richest 12 percent of households.

In fact, it's hard to name a single creative policy that has political legs in Washington. Is anyone serious about tackling the crazy tort system, which consumes more than a dollar in administrative and legal costs for every dollar it transfers to the victims of malpractice? Nope. Is there any prospect of allowing the millions of immigrants who come here to do so legally? To be honest, not much.

Instead, the right and left are pushing policies that are marginal to the country's problems. The right wants to make its tax cuts "permanent," even though the boomers' retirement ensures that taxes will have to go up. The left wants to raise the minimum wage, even though this can only help a minority of workers.

I'm not predicting the end of the American era, not by a long shot. The U.S. business culture is as pragmatic and effective as its political culture is dysfunctional. But has there been a worse moment for American power since Ronald Reagan celebrated morning in America almost a quarter of a century ago? I can't think of one.

smallaby@washpost.com

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