America’s Moral Menopause

The world would be better off if the US renounced its self-appointed role of global policeman, and examined the corruption of moral values borne of imperial ambition, writes AYMAN EL-AMIR

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The world would be better off if the US renounced its self-appointed role of global policeman, and examined the corruption of moral values borne of imperial ambition, writes AYMAN EL-AMIR

For almost 200 years, the US has claimed the moral high ground in world affairs. As it prospered, it looked on a wretched global scene of war, poverty, dictatorship, conquest, exploitation, colonial rule and the denial of human rights. Imbued with a new sense of global power following allied victories in World War I and World War II, the US soon changed from the acclaimed position of moral guru to that of the scion of imperial power. When the US withdraws from Iraq in defeat it will leave the Middle East/Gulf region in a state of unparalleled chaos and instability, a political vacuum remaining that not even massive US military presence in the region could fill. It has unleashed forces it cannot control and is trying to contain them by maintaining a decrepit status quo. The short-lived American empire is inexorably entering its period of political and moral menopause. It would do the US, and the turbulent world it has created, well if it retreated from its failed ideology of neo-conservatism into an era of neo- isolationism.


Nations of the world need a breathing space to develop political and economic systems of their choice, free from the diktat of US political globalisation. International economic and political institutions like the United Nations, the World Bank and the IMF, among others, need to be liberated from US political influence. The US’s use of force and gunboat diplomacy in crisis situations should be rolled back, along with its budget deficit and draconian anti-terrorism measures impinging on civil liberties. It should desist from categorising Islam as analogous with terrorism. The US has to stop “liberating” countries it chooses, abetting dictatorships it embraces, fuelling the arms race in space, and resisting international measures to control and reduce greenhouse gases that are increasing global warming. Its blinded support of rabid Israeli military actions against the Palestinians in their occupied lands breeds resentment, resistance and tragic violence. Its heavy military presence in several Arab countries, even with the consent of their rulers, to protect its oil interests, is counter-productive. Its confrontational attitude towards Iran, which basically aims to protect Israeli military superiority in the region, is a losing battle. The US is out of step with the world, not the other way around. And these are signs of an ageing colonial power.

After fighting two world wars, partly guided by Wilsonian principles, the US lost its moral compass in Vietnam. Having played a key role in repelling and defeating Nazism, and despite the standoff in the Korean War, the US ventured into Vietnam with the bravado of an impregnable global power. But moral authority did not back US military prowess. It came out of a decade-long war in defeat, with 58,000 young Americans dead, more than 110,000 wounded, billions of dollars in military expenditure lost but no lessons learned. The Vietnam War left the US in national trauma, but not in national debate. As a consequence, the US view of the world remained tinged with shortcomings: little memory of the past and a narrow-minded vision of the future.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the successful execution of the first Gulf war in the early years of the 1990s afforded the US recognition as the world’s sole superpower. The US exercised that power with no moral enlightenment. A pack of neo-conservative wolves coalesced around that sense of unbridled power to build the now-discredited Project for a New American Century in 1997 – an imperial concept based on the supremacy of US firepower. Several media accounts concur that it was during that period that the plan for the invasion of Iraq was hatched. But it was not until the controversial election of George W Bush and the downing of the two World Trade Center towers in 2001 that this disastrous vision came into its own. It was sanctioned by President Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy of the US authored by, and grounded in, the same immoral value system that now haunts Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank. With the exception of US Vice-President Dick Cheney, members of the star team of the 2002 National Security Strategy that entailed the calamitous invasion of Iraq have all but abandoned or been forced out of the sinking ship of the Bush administration.

The US project for modernising the Middle East is in tatters. “Liberated” Iraq has become a textbook study in how to destroy a country. Baghdad’s fourth security plan, now in its third month, has left more than 1,500 Iraqis dead. Sectarian violence and increasing US-British casualties apart, Turkish-Kurdish tensions are rising. The US’s Greater Middle East democracy project has been abandoned and its target states in the region are increasingly becoming totalitarian police states. By contrast, Mauritania, one of the least developed countries far removed from the US agenda, has successfully conducted genuine democratic presidential elections without US assistance. The US is also coming under unusual criticism from some of its closest allies – Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Terrorism is on the rise and has more recently assumed lethal expression in North Africa. Afghanistan, where the US has engaged most of its European allies, is heating up, with the Taliban making a strong comeback. The confrontation with Iran over its nuclear capacities is inconclusive and the US has lost momentum in the face of Iran’s chess-game manoeuvring. In Palestine, where the game of regular Abbas-Olmert meetings leaves an impression of progress but no real substance, US duplicity has been demonstrably exposed. Even proposed arms sales to some Gulf Arab States are being vetoed by Israel. The Bush administration, now in its twilight years, has succeeded in nothing, especially in the Middle East.

The US lost its moral authority when national debate surrendered to the power of government. Bad governments are often inflated with a messianic sense of mission that stifles public scrutiny. In the case of Iraq, as in the case of Vietnam before, government-instigated national hysteria prevailed over sober discussion. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and his powerhouse team, including Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and others, had the capacity to consult numerous institutions as they designed, planned and executed the invasion of Iraq, but they chose to ignore nearly all. When former president George H W Bush and former secretary of state James Baker III assembled a multinational force of 525,000 troops in 1991 to expel invading Iraq from Kuwait, they had built a moral and military consensus for the action through the United Nations. George W Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 with no moral or political justification and against the will of the United Nations.

The trouble with imperial powers is that, like small-time dictatorships, they are blinded to the edicts of a higher moral order by transient military might. The same writing has been etched on the wall from the times of the Roman empire to the Vietnam war, passing through the Crusades, the Napoleonic wars, the British empire, the imperial dynasties of Europe, the Ottoman empire, the Soviet Union, to imperial Japan and Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

For the US, the backlash is imminent. It is rapidly losing its imperial grip on its own backyard of South America, where former “allies” are becoming increasingly rebellious. Rising nuclear stars in the East, such as China, India and Pakistan, are becoming more assertive in political-military demeanour and more competitive in business practices. Russia, the epicentre of the former Soviet empire, is using its power in unconventional ways – in energy policies, arms sales and diplomacy.

The world is spinning out of US political control because the US has lost its moral standing. This decline is highlighted not only by Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, but in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and when US political parties and individuals betray all moral standards by ignoring what Israel is doing to the Palestinians for the sake of garnering election campaign funds. US imperial decline is not the result of the aberrant vision of one misguided administration. The malaise goes much deeper. Therefore, the US would do itself, and the world, a favour by withdrawing into a period of political soul-searching until it embraces a more rational, more moral perception of the world of the 21st century.

[The writer is a former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of UN Radio and Television in New York.]