by Zafar Bangash (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 3, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1433)
It is always difficult to reconcile with decline in one’s power and clout. This is as true of individuals in old age as it is of societies and empires in their twilight years.
While individuals generally reconcile with the fact that they are no longer able to do tasks they effortlessly performed in the prime of their life, it is much more difficult for societies to adjust to new realities. A quick glance at Britain or Russia will make this clear. The British still conduct themselves as if they matter in global politics despite their third world status; the Russians hark back to the days of the Soviet Union and are trying to reassert themselves in world affairs.
This is the plight of the has-been powers. What should one make of the US, claimant to sole superpower status? American politicians are loathed to accept US decline. President Obama recently thundered that those who talk about American decline do not know what they are talking about. His potential Republican rival, Mitt Romney acknowledged US decline but blamed Obama for it. Romney vowed to restore American glory. This is political posturing designed to garner public support. What else can one expect from American politicians in an election year? With or without elections, no politician would publicly admit their country has lost its clout.
Let us look at the evidence. Last December when US troops were preparing to leave Iraq, a senior American officer suggested to his Iraqi counterpart for a farewell ceremony. Without waiting for the interpreter to translate, the Iraqi officer shot back: “No ceremony; just get out.” This would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. If the US retreat from Iraq, two weeks ahead of schedule, was ignominious, wait till the Taliban are done with them in Afghanistan. Any sensible American commander would recommend they leave now with some dignity still intact, as most of their allies are doing. A few years later, American soldiers may be forced to flee in their diapers.
The US has had to eat humble pie in two other crucial areas: Syria and Iran. For months, the US tried to browbeat the Syrian regime into surrendering to opposition forces. While the regime in Damascus is no paragon of virtue, it was not willing to roll over for a bunch of US-Israeli-Saudi backed thugs and gangsters. After huffing and puffing for months, the US and its allies have been forced to hide behind the Kofi Annan mission as a face-saving formula leaving the regime in place.
The US climb-down in the case of Iran is even more dramatic. For more than a decade, the US and the illegitimate Zionist entity Israel threatened to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if it did not stop uranium enrichment. Iran insisted on its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and held its ground, although it paid a high economic price because of sanctions and other restrictions, such as on its foreign banking transactions. On April 14, when representatives of the Western powers met their Iranian counterpart in Istanbul, they had to climb down from their illegal and immoral stand and accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian energy and research needs. This is what Iran had said all along. So what changed? Iran called the US-Israeli bluff. The US is in no position to launch another war when it cannot escape with dignity even from the one it is currently embroiled in against the Afghans. The limits of its power forced the US to reconcile with reality.
How did the US end up in this sorry state when 20 years earlier pundits were proclaiming it the “sole superpower”? American neocons arrogantly declared no rival power would be allowed to emerge. Some talked triumphantly of the end of history while George Bush announced immediately after 9/11: “you are either with us or against us.” Few rulers in the world wanted to be on the wrong side of an enraged superpower.
America is the victim of its own hubris. While Americans have never cared for other people, in their arrogance they thought they could fight on two fronts and win. Their secret weapon was air power. No doubt, the US has a powerful air force and it can inflict immense damage on targeted societies but what they failed to realize was that Afghanistan was a target poor country. People used to living in mud huts cannot be bombed into submission; they have little to lose. Their spartan life makes them impervious to threats of war or fear.
Academics have attributed US defeat to imperial overstretch. There is certainly an element of truth in it. What is nearer the mark is that the values the US society pursues are the ultimate cause of its decline and defeat. Equating happiness with the pursuit of material possession is at the root of America’s and indeed all materialistic societies’ problems. This does not mean one should have no material possessions; one must not to be consumed by them. America is a materialistic society; its elite not only rob others but also their own. Ordinary Americans have also realized this hence the Occupy Wall Street Movement that we would do well to realize has not ended.
American decline has naturally allowed space for other powers to emerge. China is fast taking on the role of the new superpower even if it has wisely resisted the temptation of throwing its weight around. Nor has it embarked on military adventures to export its ideology. According to the International Monetary Fund (a Western-dominated institution) data, China’s economy is currently about 80% the size of the US. It is projected to pass the US by 2016. Other analysts believe China has already surpassed the US. Regardless, there are unmistakable signs of US decline and China’s rise.
This, however, is a purely materialistic analysis. We need to look deeper. Twenty years ago, the US emerged as the sole superpower because Muslims in Afghanistan defeated the Red Army. Today China is rising to the top because of US defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Islamic Iran’s steadfastness. Muslims have defeated two superpowers in 20 years but why have Muslims not emerged in the leading role? This is a question that the global Islamic movement must ponder, even while Muslims celebrate the demise of another superpower. But sitting on our laurels will not do; we have to work hard and remain true to Islamic principles of fairness based on justice to emerge in the role assigned to us by Allah (swt).