by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 6, Rajab, 1428)
Perhaps never before in history has a self-declared superpower fallen from glory as precipitously as has the US. In less than 20 years it has gone from a hyperpower to being a spent force unable to deal even with such backward societies as Afghanistan and Iraq.
After America’s swift defeat and eviction of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in early 1991, followed by the demise of the Soviet Union in December 1991, there was no power on earth that could match the US’s military might. Western commentators pontificated about the “world’s sole superpower” and referred to then US president George Bush Senior as “president of the world”, perhaps with some justification. Some crowed about the end of history; others spoke in triumphal tones about not allowing a rival power to emerge on the world stage to challengeAmerica’s status as the sole arbiter of world affairs. The second assault on Iraq in 2003 only reinforced the inflated image of America’s invincibility, already puffed up by its toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2001. America, it appeared, was on a roll.
There are certain tools required for states to project political power on the world stage: military might underpinned by economic strength, for instance. Powerful, far-reaching mass-communications media can also be added to this list, because the US has successfully projected a wholly undeserved image of a power committed to the rule of law that is engaged in promoting global peace and justice. The US is not the benign power it wishes the world to believe it is, nor so powerful as it wants its enemies to fear. The Taliban may have been driven from power but they have not disappeared; resentment against American and other occupation forces’ brutality has given them an opportunity to mobilise Afghans against the invaders. Similarly, in Iraq defeating its army was the easy part; fighting and crushing the resistance is an entirely different matter. People under occupation will resist; it is human nature. And they learn to improvise: it would be foolish to fight wars according to rules set by the enemy. This is as true in Afghanistan and Iraq as it is in Palestine and Lebanon. In none of these theatres have the defenders had the material wherewithal to match the invaders’, yet they have given a good account of themselves. Technological superiority is clearly not the only factor that determines the outcome of a struggle.
The US has the largest defence (read offence) budget in the world, exceeding the total defence expenditure of the next 20 countries on the list combined, but the last six years have exposed yet again the uselessness of depending on weapons if their users lack motivation. Both Iraq and Lebanon illustrate this phenomenon well. In both countries, the defenders have relied on asymmetrical warfare. By drawing American troops into urban combat, the Iraqi resistance has neutralised US superiority in air-power and other resources. The outcome of the struggle now depends largely on the motivation of the combatants. By using car-bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IED), the resistance has not only inflicted huge casualties on the Americans but also caused immense psychological damage. In addition, indiscriminate retaliation against such attacks results in civilian casualties, creating resentment against the occupiers and playing into the hands of the resistance. Almost exactly the same thing is going on in Afghanistan.
Lebanon’s is an even more interesting case. Hizbullah has defeated the Israeli army twice: in May 2000 and July-August 2006. The earlier struggle was a long-drawn-out affair in which, starting in October 1983, Hizbullah gradually increased the cost of the occupation until Israel could no longer sustain it. In the Israeli onslaught last year, Hizbullah surprised even its own supporters and admirers by withstanding the Israeli attack and forcing the invading force to a draw. The myth of Israeli invincibility lay in tatters as the last Israeli soldiers straggled across the border in ignominious retreat. Never before had the zionists faced such humiliation against any Arab army, but Hizbullah’s fighters taught them a lesson they will not forget in a hurry. They neither possessed F-16 planes nor Merkeva or Bradley tanks; armed only with AK-47 rifles and Katyusha rockets, Hizbullah made up for their lack of weapons with the far superior weapon of imaan (faith and trust in Allah), a concept totally alien to the invaders. A people who are not afraid of death cannot really be defeated.
The US’s technological and economic superiority also is no longer tenable. As a result of the foolish policies pursued by US president George Bush and his neo-con supporters and advisors, the US has in effect been bankrupted. When Bush became president in January 2001, the US had a surplus of several hundred billion dollars. Thanks to Bush, the US today has a deficit of $46 trillion ($8 trillion external and $38 trillion internal). That is not all; many of Washington’s main rivals hold the key to the US’s economic health. China, which has emerged as the strongest rival to the US’s global hegemony, has reserves of $1.2 trillion. In the first six months of 2007, its trade surplus with the US surpassed $100 billion. If it decides to cash in theUS treasury bonds it holds, it could literally bankrupt Washington. Russia (the former Soviet Union), which was defeated in Afghanistan, is also reasserting itself and has moved swiftly to secure a niche for itself on the global stage. It has established gas and energy cartels and amassed a huge fortune as a result.
The unipolar world that the US boasted about after the demise of the Soviet Union no longer exists, thanks to the resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Muslims, however, can take little comfort from this achievement, as they are not likely to be the beneficiaries of their own sacrifices; others, notably China and Russia but also Brazil and India, are better positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. Reflecting the reality of a rapidly changing global environment, Russian president Vladimir Putin mocked proponents of the unipolar world at the Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 10, 2007, when he rhetorically asked:
“What is a ‘unipolar’ world?” He then offered this analysis: “It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign—one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within. It has nothing in common with democracy, which is the power of the majority in respect to the interests and opinions of the minority. In Russia, we are constantly being lectured about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.”
Putin could not have uttered such remarks when he assumed power seven years ago. At that time, Russia was still reeling from the shock of its demise as a great power. Boris Yeltsin, who was seldom sober in his entire presidency, had destroyed the Russian economy; poverty stalked the land, with mass starvation in many parts. The Russians were completely demoralised, but the West did little to assuage their injured pride; instead, boasting about its victory, it rubbed salt into the festering wound of the “Cold War” loser. No more. Russia is now courted, as was evident during Putin’s visit to the US in early July. He became the only foreign leader to be entertained at the Bush family estate at Kennebunkport in Maine. President Bush was so nervous about this encounter that he needed his father at his side to get through the two days of discussions. Putin, an old KGB hand, is a master tactician and far more cunning than the intellectually challenged Bush. Besides, he is aware that the US no longer has the ability to throw its weight about or get its way in world affairs.
We do not lack the natural resources to become a global power; what is sorely lacking is the vision to transform our present blighted condition to one of honour and dignity. To achieve our rightful place on the world stage and earn the respect of others, we have to learn to respect ourselves.
That the US has been cut down to size is good news. Muslims can justifiably take pride in the fact that their sacrifices brought this about, but what is less satisfactory is that no Muslim country is likely to benefit from this change in global politics. We are not poor, only poorly led. We do not lack the natural resources to become a global power; what is sorely lacking is the vision to transform our present blighted condition to one of honour and dignity. To achieve our rightful place on the world stage and earn the respect of others, we have to learn to respect ourselves. This will not come about with the present crop of oppressive rulers at the helm of affairs in the nation-states that litter the Muslim world. Unless these oppressive rulers and their imposed systems are removed, as the people of Iran have managed, there is little likelihood of our emerging on the world scene as a credible power worthy of respect.
It is entirely up to us to change our condition:
“Allah does not change the condition of a people unless they [first] change that which is within themselves [i.e., show willingness to change for the better]” (al-Qur’an 13:11).