America from afar — (V) Confusion

Tarek Osman
Sunday 28 Apr 2024

The last decade of the 20th century witnessed America’s dominion over the rest of the world, while the first decade of the 21st witnessed its growing confusion.


The attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York and Washington DC were a shock to the vast majority of Americans, not just because of the surprise factor of attacks on the continental US, and the fact that they had targeted some of America’s most iconic symbols of power, but also because they came after a decade of extreme American confidence that its ideas, ways of living, and notions of what human progress is and means had won. 

To be attacked at home after a long moment of such assuredness was in itself an emotional bombshell.

The US invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq were responses to that emotional blow much more than they were calculated strategic moves. The ideas of the neo-conservatives who had dominated the strategic thinking of the first George W Bush administration were anchored on America’s dominion over the rest of the world, and there were no genuine innovations of the thought upon which that moment had come about, as discussed in the previous article in this series.

The neo-conservatives wanted to push the envelope of US dominion from capturing the imagination of the rest of the world and yielding immense soft power in the 1990s to actually reshaping the politics of regions that they deemed of strategic value to America to their liking. Their plans were a mélange of idealism, hubris, ivory-tower thinking, and lack of rigour.

The price was colossal and not just in terms of money. Hundreds of thousands of Americans came to engage in combat in distant lands for reasons that, with the passing of the years and the erosion of the causes that were touted as the rationale for the invasions, became increasingly vague. This incurred a steep cost inside America regarding the credibility of its political machinations.

The international price ranged from rejection to resistance. As the shock of the attacks on New York and Washington receded, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq descended into unending wars with no clear rationale or objectives, many of America’s allies, let alone its opponents, rejected the adulation of America of the previous decade.

“Old Europe” – a term that became popular in those days – was the paramount example. France and Germany saw in America’s insisting on invading Iraq, in the face of acute reservations from their side, the blatant face of its domination. At that moment in the first decade of the 21st century, the seductive subtlety of America’s soft power was being ripped to pieces by the iron fist of an America that seemed directed by anger, naïveté, and often ignorance.

There is an argument that it was inevitable. Some observers invoked the British historian Lord Acton’s saying that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” in order to understand that moment in America’s history. In this view, America’s dominion over the rest of the world in the 1990s was necessarily going to attract rash characters to the circles of decision making and yield to excesses in the use of power. This is almost an historical law, to which all previous empires have succumbed.

America’s resources in the first decade of the 21st century seemed to be able to sustain any adventurism, to fund any conflict, and to impose whatever America’s ruling circles had decided to do. A period of economic growth, including because of the tremendous growth of China and rising oil prices, created a flurry of demand for American assets. Sovereign and institutional investors from many parts of the world scrambled to buy American treasury bills, acquire American real estate assets, and invest in America’s capital markets. 

This economic pre-eminence resulted in the weakening of any checks on Washington’s machinations. However, the continuation of America’s economic dominance in the first decade of the 21st century was miles away from the infatuation that the rest of the world had had with the idea of America in the 1990s.

America squandered one of the most valuable prizes that came with its victory in the Cold War to a large extent, namely the acceptance by large sections of the rest of the world of America as the pre-eminent power, not only in international politics and economics, but also in setting the global agenda and creating the trends that grasp attention and shape thinking. 

By late in the first decade of the 21st century, gone was the fascination with America, the nation, the ideas, and the socioeconomic model. In the eyes of many, the city upon the hill had lost its glamour, and its light was no longer the guide to the future.

The two decades in which America was mired in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, incurring colossal costs in terms of manpower, dollars, political credibility, relations with allies, and, equally importantly, in the diversion of attention, proved to be build-up periods for the leading opponents to the American-led system that had emerged after the end of the Cold War, particularly China and Russia.

Some in the US say that America naively expected China and Russia to evolve their worldviews and with time embrace the liberal American political and economic model. A more sophisticated version of this argument says that America, in the historical moment following the end of the Cold War, engaged in inverse-mirror thinking. In other words, it expected its values to find their way into the thinking of its ideological opponents.

However, both these views are wrong. Inherent in the American strategy under the neo-conservatives was the assumption that the American model was vastly powerful and innately superior and that its opponents would either fail or be compelled to adopt it. Paradoxically, this assumption was stronger by far in the 1990s when America relied on its soft power than in the first decade of the 21st century when the America of the neo-conservatives had deployed hundreds of thousands of troops in different countries of the world in highly ambitious state-reshaping occupations.

The view about America’s opponents embracing its values was wrong because it misjudged the challenge that America was facing. The 11 September attacks, and subsequent militant Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe, occupied America’s strategic thinking, at least in the circles that enter the limelight, since a significant part of the justifications of the invasions, and later of the state-reshaping occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, was based on the idea of a global war on terror. 

For many observers, it seemed strange that the mightiest empire human history had ever known and one commanding unparalleled military and technological capabilities should be engaged for two decades in an all-consuming war against rag-tag groups of men with hardly any access to real resources hiding amidst desolate mountains. It was one thing for America to be obsessed with this war for two decades. It was quite another to expect its strategic competitors, among them China, to have the same mindset and commit to the same war.

Perhaps there was also an element of wishful thinking. America had spent four decades engaged in a neck-and-neck race with the former Soviet Union, in which most of its state institutions, along with various parts of its economy, had mobilised in that grand strategic confrontation. Now America wanted its moment of dominion to last, being one which it was convinced that its ideas and model had won. It wanted this largely to avoid entering into a new strategic confrontation with new competitors and opponents.  

It took two decades for America to internalise the gravity of such strategic mistakes. Interestingly, the moment of reckoning came at the hands of a man who had hardly any experience of foreign policy, as the next article in this series will show.

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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