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Thursday, April 6, 2006

U.S. is its own worst enemy


Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- U.S. congressmen heartily congratulated themselves when -- after their outcry -- Dubai Ports World backed off and decided to relinquish control of the U.S. ports that were included in its takeover of P&O.

Congress has reason to be worried about the hostile environment enveloping the United States, but its leaders are looking in the wrong direction. Security against devilish foreign predators is an issue. But the bigger danger to the U.S. and to the world comes from the U.S. itself. Senators and congressmen and President George W. Bush himself should be looking in the mirror.

What has happened in the last few weeks shows an empire with a potentially terminal disease. The U.S. behaves as if it has the right to rule the Earth, but reality shows a world unraveling rapidly out of American control. Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran are the obvious signs. But underneath there are cancers eating at U.S. democracy itself.

When the world has grown progressively more complex, the U.S. increasingly seeks simplistic solutions; when the world cries for a broader more compassionate vision and a long-term plan, the U.S. insists on its own quick fix; when the world needs generosity, the U.S. thinks of itself first and last.

At any time, these would be a dangerous attitudes. But just now, crippled by debts that are growing so quickly that they demand blood transfusions of almost $2 billion dollars of foreign money every day just to keep the U.S. economy running in the style to which Americans have become accustomed, this is destructively crazy. With the trade deficit likely to top $800 billion this year and with American household savings at minus 0.4 percent of income, Congress should remember the old adage that beggars can't be choosers.

America's problems with the world start at the top, with the president and Congress. As the world has got more complex and increasingly multipolar, America has found it hard to accept different world views, sadly epitomized by Bush. The leap from the small-town politics of Texas to the world stage of the White House would have been a difficult one anyway, but the terror of 9/11 merely blinded Bush.

In the hour of terror, Bush's America had the sympathy of the world, summed up by Le Monde's banner headline that "We are all Americans." No longer. Instead of building on the sympathy to create a consensus in which he could have played the formative role, Bush has gone his own way like a spoiled child.

Iraq is the paradigm example of Bush's brat mentality. He made connections that did not exist, not just on weapons of mass destruction, but on links between former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. Having swept aside the advice of the rest of the world, he invaded Iraq without a plan to rebuild the sad country, so that more Iraqis have died and soon more U.S. troops will have died -- 2,323 by March 2006 -- than the 2,762 people from 91 countries who al-Qaida killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

Bush's rule is replete with other examples that shows he is unable to understand minds that cannot think as straightforwardly as rich Texans: the environment, world trade, democracy among them. He has crusaded for democracy, but when Iranians and Palestinians held elections and chose people whom Bush did not like, he showed a hostile face.

The flaws in America's own democracy exacerbate Bush's deficiencies. The founding fathers of the U.S. created a separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, which was suited to an independent fledgling republic, but has developed dangerously for a superpower.

The White House has become an imperial palace believing it holds sway over the whole Earth, just as Congress has become full of people whose guiding realpolitik has become to win enough pork to keep their constituents happy to get them re-elected. This is obviously true of members of the House of Representatives, who face elections every two years, but it has become increasingly true of the Senate, too.

Budget time offers the best example of how far the modern U.S. has drifted from prudent governance of a responsible nation. There is rarely a principled debate on value for money, sensible investments and prudent cutbacks but always an almighty scramble to get to the trough in search of special benefits for favored constituents.

Congress has no time to offer the grand debating chamber that might embrace the views and wisdom of the world beyond the U.S. or suggest compromises or construct a consensus that America could lead. In any case there is no evidence that this president would be interested.

In the end it will be America's tragedy. Americans have yet to understand that they cannot go on spending beyond their means and expect others to pick up the tab while obeying all American demands. Foreign companies -- Lenovo yesterday, Dubai PW today -- who knows which Chinese or Indian or Japanese company will pick up U.S. assets tomorrow. Countries, seeing the inability of American troops to cope even in places like Afghanistan and Iraq -- which the U.S. has supposedly conquered -- will increase their military spending. Others will jostle to become the successor superpower or to fill the gap made by U.S. weakness.

Does it matter, apart from to the U.S.? Yes, it does because after World War II, it looked as if some lessons had been learned about war and peace and economic development of this fragile planet. U.S. generosity through the Marshall Plan to Europe and Japan, the setting up of the United Nations and agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, European countries coming together in peaceful cooperation, were all good signs, as were the development of international targets for providing economic assistance and defeating intractable poverty.

In the last few years there has been backsliding. The U.S. has taken the lead and Bush has had a big part in making narrow domestic concerns the centerpiece of policy, but all the Western countries, including Japan, have played their own stingy roles. This narrow stinginess of heart has been matched in the Muslim world where the austere bloodthirsty vision of Osama bin Laden -- which reflects only a tiny minority in the long rich history of Islamic scholarship, achievement and hospitality -- has now come to be seen as the mainstream.

The tragedy for the U.S. is that its empire will crumble. The tragedy for the rest of us is that this will create a dangerous vacuum in which the lessons of the last 100 years will be thrown away as countries and cliques struggle to protect their share of the riches of an increasingly uncertain world where more than a billion people go to bed not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

It may not be too late. Engagement has to be the watchword, between the U.S., China and Europe, between Japan and China, between the West and the Muslim world. But the tragedy is that it is too late for this president and this Congress. All U.S. political eyes are focused on the November elections and who cares about the rest of the world.

Kevin Rafferty, a Briton, is editor in chief of Oxford-based PlainWords Media, and served as managing editor at the World Bank from 1997-1999.


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