Monday, 12 November 2007

US power is in decline - but where does that leave liberalism?

Prior to the war in Iraq, there were many happy outcomes expected by the US administration from the war.
A democratic Iraq would be grateful to the US and would elect a friendly government. Isreal would be safer. Iraq's prosperity from it's considerable oil reserves would refund the US for the war, and would help bring prosperity to the country. In fact oil would be cheaper, and the world less dependent on Saudi Arabia, an unreliable ally after the 911 bombings by Saudi terrorists. Surronding countries would start to notice that liberal democracy brings stability and prosperity. Public opinion in the Middle East would shift. Most of those who previously admired Osama Bin Ladan would give up on that, and idolise George Bush instead.
Liberals who opposed the war, and who banged on about international law would look pathetic. Who cares about the lies about WMD? The people of Iraq would be free.
Instead the nature of the defeat has even taken liberals by surprise. At various times there appear to be moments of victory. The initial invasion was swift. Saddam's henchmen get caught or killed, including his sons. People voted in democratic elections. Saddam Hussein gets caught. Then he is executed. And now the surge is "working".
Yet these are all false dawns.
The national government can barely hold together. It doesn't have much power anyway. The police and the army are infiltrated. The Kurdish region is a de facto independent state, and may draw Turkey into a bloody conflict. Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia are exploiting the opportunities to spread their influence (Iran being the big winner of course). Even if the fortunes of Al Qaeda are up and down, the religious extremists and criminal gangs are terrorising the population, many of whom are leaving as refugees.
Iraq today must be one of the worst countries in the world to live.
All this has little to do with international law. It was striking at the Lib Dem conference that even Paddy Ashdown was arguing that in Liberal interventions, the first thing you do not do is introduce democracy. In a democracy in a divided country, the people vote for the extremes in order to get the best deal in any settlement.
In the case of Iraq, it was the Sunnis who previously had control under Saddam Hussein. As a minority, they stood to lose everything within a democracy. Majority rule is unacceptable to them, and they will fight the Shia to the bitter end.
The battle is not as unequal as it may seem. Under Saddam Hussein, the army was run by the Sunnis, and they know about military tactics. This makes them superior as a fighting force, despite the bravery of the Mehdi army.
Democracy more often divides rather than unites.
This has been noticed of course.
The EU is not such a wonderful club to join anymore. Previously it looked like an opportunity to become prosperous. Instead the anxiety is that the new countries will level down the prosperity of the EU, and introduce ethnic and religious minorities that do not "fit in". East Europe and the Islamic world are starting to take offence. Maybe they are not so keen to join.
The new emerging powers in the world sho no sign of adopting liberal values, notably Russia and China.
Some of us may want to rely on the US for upholding Liberal values. But as John Gray has pointed out, the paradox of their Liberal Imperialism in Iraq has acheived the opposite.
The (US) administration continues to insist that the president must be free to determine what counts as torture. Vice president Dick Cheney, asked on a radio program whether he was in favour of a "dunk in the water" for terrorist detainees replied that he was, declaring that the question was a "no brainer for me". Techniques of "water-boarding" - a form of torture used by the Kymer Rouge in Cambodia, and whose use against Americans in the second world war resulted in a Japanese officer being sentenced to fifteen years hard labour - are not prohibited and can be practised routinely by the US. The same is true for sleep deprivation, a method of torture used in Guantanamo that was employed by the NKVD in Stalinist Soviet Union to generate "confessions" in the show trials of the 1930s. Torture techniques involving sensory deprivation which were used by the Chinese on American POWs in the Korean war have also been used on Jose Padilla, an American citizen arrested as an enermy combatant and arrested without charge on a naval brig in South Carolina from mid 2002 until January 2006. By any internationally accepted standard of what constitutes torture, the world's pre-eminant liberal regime has committed itself to the practice as a matter of national policy. Along with this there has been a shift away from the consitutional traditions that curbed American government in the past. The vote by the Senate on 28th September 2006 that allowed the president the authority to determine what counts as torture also suspended habeas corpus for people detained as terrorist suspects, denying them their right to know the offense with which they have been charged and to challenge their detention in court. Henceforth anyone charged with involvement in terrorism - not only foreign nationals but US citizens - can be detained without charge and held indefinitely. In effect this put the executive above the law while placing citizenry outside it. Taken together with the Patriot Acts, which permit surveillence of the entire American population, the US has suffered a loss of freedom that has no parallel in any mature democracy.
Democracy is far from defeated of course. The US, western Europe, Australia remain prosperous, and India is marching ahead. Even in Africa, democratic regimes appear to be more prosperous for now.
The US budget deficit is funded largely by the Chinese, who is a strong ally of Iran who feels they can resist the US come what may. US oil comes largely from Venezuala, the profits of which undermine US foreign policy in South America.
Some will see the decline of US power as a good thing. That the US had so much power pre-Iraq war, much of it illusionary as we now know was not a good thing in itself, but neither is the emergence of China and Russia, who do not even pretend to believe in the same values. And their is little sign that the EU is growing in influence.
One major flashpoint for the future is Taiwain. China is in all liklelihood calculating when to invade. No need to rush, events are taking their course. The US is still very powerful in having a very powerful military with no equal in the world. No much use was it in Iraq, but still a concern for China no doubt.
So we simply do not know when the confrontation will take place, or what the consequences will be. I suspect this will be a defining moment in world history, when it arrives.

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