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Past the Apogee: America Under Pressure

By Charles Krauthammer

(Editor's Note: Charles Krauthammer's keynote address at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's November 14, 2006, annual dinner, at which Dr. Krauthammer was the second recipient of FPRI's Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service.)

We are now in a period of confusion and disorientation, almost despair. I think it is worthwhile to look back historically to see how we got to where we are today.

In the mid to late 1980s, the idea of American decline was in vogue. Japan was rising, China was awakening, Europe was consolidating, America was said to have been in the midst of what historian Paul Kennedy called "imperial overstretch."[1] The conventional wisdom of the time was that the bipolar world of the United States and the Soviet Union would yield to a new world structure which would be multipolar, with power fairly equally divided between Japan, perhaps China, a diminished Soviet Union, a consolidating Europe, the United States, and perhaps other rising countries such as India or perhaps even Brazil. That's how the world looked in the mid to late 1980s.

When I wrote the article "The Unipolar Moment" (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1990/91), it achieved some renown because, remarkably, I was the only one saying at the time, that in fact, with the end of the Cold War, the United States would end up as the unipolar power, the dominant, hegemonic power in the world. There would be none even close to us in ranking. The old bipolar world would yield not to a multipolar world but to one with only one great influence, and that would be us.

In fact, that has occurred. At the time, I was thinking about how long this might last and called the article "The Unipolar Moment." I thought it might last a generation. Twenty to thirty years, I wrote. Here we are almost exactly 15 years later, the midpoint of the more optimistic estimate.

The first part of the unipolar era since the fall of the Soviet Union, which can the dated between 11/09 (November 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall) and 9/11, would be the period of American ascent, in which our dominance in the world became absolutely undeniable, to the degree that in the 1990s, we couldn't quite figure out what to do with all this preponderance of power. There were some neoconservatives and others who were proclaiming an era of American greatness where we ought to exert ourselves overseas, even in the absence of a threat, simply as a way of being true to our traditions and values. To some extent, one might say that our intervention in the Balkan wars, where we had almost no national interest, was an example of this assertion of unrivaled power in the interests of our values.

Others of us thought that in the absence of an enemy, we ought not be exerting ourselves for the sake of exerting ourselves. I advocated a policy that I called "dry powder," where we would maintain our resources, conserve our strength, and wait for the inevitable, which would be the rise of an adversary. In the 1990s, of course, that adversary was not obvious. He was working in the shadows, preparing, and finally revealing himself on 9/11. That's when the structure of the world became blindingly clear. We were confronted with a new ideological, existential enemy, meaning an enemy who threatens our existence and very way of life; who is driven by a messianic faith and is engaged in a struggle to the death. This was an heir to the ideological existential struggles of the twentieth century, first against fascism and then against communism, in which we had prevailed.

Sept. 11 ushered in the second era of this unipolar era, which I would call the era of assertion, where the power that had been latent in America shows itself. I would date this era from 9/11 to the March 14, 2005, a date probably unfamiliar to you and not particularly renowned in our history today, but a date that I think will be remembered by historians as the apogee of American power, the peak of the arc of the unipolar era.

On 9/11, the United States, with its ally Great Britain, decided that it would respond in two ways: revenge and reconstruction. It would retaliate against the enemy, try to pursue him and his associates in Afghanistan and elsewhere; but it also decided -- and this was the Bush Doctrine -- that that was not enough of a response; that spending the next twenty to thirty years hunting cave-to-cave in Afghanistan was not an adequate response. It was perhaps necessary, but certainly not sufficient, to deal with this new ideological enemy. This enemy is not, as some have pretended, simply a band of terrorists and extremists numbering in the thousands. It's an idea with many, many practitioners of different stripes--some Shiite, some Sunni--and with allies, fifth columns, potential recruits throughout the world, including large immigrant populations in the West.

The Bush Doctrine held that besides attacking the immediate enemy who had perpetrated 9/11, it would have to engage in a larger enterprise of changing the underlying conditions which had given birth to this idea of Islamic radicalism, and to change the conditions that had allowed it to recruit and breed, particularly in the Arab world.

This meant changing the internal structure of Arab regimes and in a larger sense the culture of the Arab/Islamic world. This had been the one area of the world that uniquely had been untouched by the modernizing and democratizing influences of the postwar era. East Asia had famously taken off economically and politically, in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere; Latin America and even some parts of Africa had democratized; of course, Western Europe had been democratic ever since World War II, but now Eastern Europe had joined the march. Only the Arab/Islamic world had been left out. Unless it was somehow encouraged and brought along on that march, it would remain recalcitrant, alienated, oppressed, tyrannical, and the place from which the kind of atavistic attacks on America and the West that we have seen on 9/11 and since would continue.

That's why the entire enterprise of changing the culture of the Arab world was undertaken. It was, as I and others had said at the time, a radical idea, an arrogant idea, a risky idea. But it was also the only idea of any coherence and consistency that anyone has advanced on how to change the underlying conditions that had led to 9/11 and ultimately to prevent the kind of conditions that would lead to a second 9/11.

So we have this half decade of American assertion. And it was an astonishing demonstration. In the mood of despair and disorientation of today, we forget what happened less than half a decade ago. The astonishingly swift and decisive success in Afghanistan, with a few hundred soldiers, some of them riding horses, directing lasers, organizing a campaign with indigenous Afghans, and defeating a regime in about a month and a half in a place that others had said was impossible to conquer; that the British and the Russians and others had left in defeat and despair in the past. It was an event so remarkable that the aforementioned Paul Kennedy now wrote an article, "The Eagle has Landed" (Financial Times, Feb. 2, 2002) in which he simply expressed his astonishment at the primacy, the power, and the unrivalled strength of the United States as demonstrated in the Afghan campaign.

After that, of course, was the swift initial victory in Iraq, in which the capital fell within three weeks. After that was a ripple effect in the region. Libya, seeing what we had done in Iraq, gave up its nuclear capacity; then the remarkable revolution in Lebanon in which Syria was essentially expelled. And that demarks the date that I spoke of. March 14 is the name of the movement in Lebanon of those who rose up against the Syrians and essentially created a new democracy--fragile, as we will see. You have all of these events happening at once: you have the glimmerings of democracy in the elections in Egypt, some changes even in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and of course what we had in January 2005 was the famous first election in Iraq, which had an electric effect on the region. That winter-spring of 2005, I think, is the apogee of this assertion of unipolarity and American power.

What we have seen, however, in the last almost two years now is what I think historians will write of as the setback. That is the year and a half between the Iraqi election and the Lebanese revolution, on the one hand, and the date that I think is going to live in history as an extremely important one, November 7, 2006, the American election, in which it was absolutely clear that the electorate had expressed its dismay and dissatisfaction with the policies in Iraq, and more generally, a sense of loss, lack of direction, and wish to contemplate retreat. As a result , we are in position now where people are talking about negotiating, for example, with our enemies Syria and Iran, which, given the conditions that Iran and Syria would lay and their objectives, which have been expressed openly and clearly, would mean very little other than American surrender of Iraq to an Iran-Syria condominium.

So what happened in this year and a half? What we have seen, for example, was the collapse in Lebanon of this new direction; we just heard two days ago that Hezbollah has pulled its members of the cabinet and is calling for demonstrations on November 20 in an attempt to actually destroy and bring down the newly elected and pro-Western government. What you have is a resurgence of Syrian influence in Lebanon, Syria being of course an ally of Iran and the patron of Hezbollah. Syria is doing all this because the Lebanese government was about to pass a law and actually did today in which it approved an international court to try the murderers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. So you have a power play in Lebanon that would undo the Lebanese revolution. You have, of course, the Lebanon war of August 2006, in which Israel had an opportunity to deliver a huge strategic setback to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah but ended up in a relative stalemate. You have Hamas gaining power in Gaza and chaos descending in Gaza, with the loss of control of the relatively moderate Abu Mazen and the Fatah movement. You had of course the rise in Iran of the very radical, ideological, and quite messianic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who speaks openly about the end of days, who speaks privately about its arrival within two or three years, and who talks about wiping Israel off the map, who clearly is intent upon achieving a nuclear capacity, but even more importantly, who defies every deadline or warning or threat from the West and does it with impunity. We've had in the last half year a collapse of our position on Iran. We talk about pressure and sanctions, but we have allowed deadline after deadline to elapse, and Iran is openly contemptuous of our attempts to impose sanctions, knowing correctly that we will not be able to get the Russians and Chinese to back them, and that ultimately even the Europeans will be weak and unwilling to join in real sanctions.

To this constellation we can add one more factor, which is of course Iraq. The hope that we had through the first election in 2005 has now been completely lost. That is because we've had the rise of sectarian violence, particularly after the Samara bombing, and also because the Sunni insurgency continues to rage and the Shiite militias continue untamed. You put all of those together and you have a large strategic setback for the United States, and most important, for the idea of successfully changing the nature of the Arab world to one which would be more democratic and tranquil and accommodationist. As a result, what you have in this recent American election is essentially a referendum on that idea, and the notion that it cannot succeed, it has not been succeeding, and we're going to have to have a change of course.

Now, the question is, what happened in the two years between the apogee of our power and this moment of despair which was registered by the American election. Al Qaeda had a chance after the first few years to if not recover, at least reorganize itself enough to be able to make advances, attacks in Madrid and London, and now of course the insurgency in Iraq, where it has relatively strengthened itself in the last several years. But most importantly is the assertiveness of Iran and its proxies in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. In that sense Iran is something of a mini-parallel to the Communist International. It is the leader of the movement. (Al Qaeda is the twin church, the Sunni version of it, in the same way perhaps that the Russians and the Chinese had their twin churches of communism, rivals but allies at times during the Cold War.) But Iran of course is the central actor now in the rise and the activity of Islamic fundamentalism, with its proxies, as I said, in Hamas, Hezbollah, the Mahdi army in Iraq and elsewhere. And it is determined, pressing its case in Iraq, and in Lebanon, in Palestine, and elsewhere.

We Americans, looking at a situation like the one that has unraveled in Iraq, immediately want to blame ourselves. We traditionally flatter ourselves that we are the root of all planetary good and evil, whether it is nuclear weapons in North Korea, poverty in Bolivia, or disco attacks in Bali. Fingers are pointed that somehow attempt to locate the root of the problem in the United States. Our discourse on Iraq has followed this same pattern. Where did we go wrong? Not enough troops, too arrogant an occupation, too little direction from the political authorities in Washington or too much? Everybody has his own theory. I have mine on the things that we should have done otherwise. We should have shot looters on day 1, we should have installed a government of Iraqi exiles immediately, and above all, we should have taken out Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army in 2004, when we had the opportunity. All of those decisions, I think, greatly complicated our problems.

Nonetheless, the root problem is not the United States and not the tactical errors that we have made in Iraq. The root problem is the Iraqis and their own political culture. Since this an evening honoring Benjamin Franklin, I want to recall to you one of his most famous statements. When leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what they had accomplished. His response was "A republic, if you can keep it." What we have done in Iraq is given them a republic, but they appear unable to keep it.

I think that has a lot to do with Iraqi history. We had two objectives going into Iraq. The first was to depose the regime--relatively easy. The second was to try to establish a self-sustaining, democratic successor government. That has proved to be extraordinarily difficult. The problem is not, as we endlessly hear, American troop levels. It's not even Iraqi troop levels. The size and the training of Iraqi forces is much less an issue than is the question of their allegiance. Some of these soldiers serve an abstraction called Iraq, but others serve political entities, militias, and/or religious sects. The Iraqi police, for example, are so infiltrated by Shiite death squads that they cannot be relied upon at all for the security of the country.

And again, the reason is not, as many critics now claim, that there is something intrinsic within Arab culture that makes them incapable of democracy. Yes, there are political, historical, and even religious reasons why the Arabs might be less prepared to be democratic in their governance than, say, East Asians or Latin Americans. But the problem, I believe, is Iraq's particular culture and history. This after all is a country that was raped and ruined for thirty years by a uniquely sadistic and cruel and atomizing totalitarianism. What was left in its wake was a social and political desert, a dearth of the kind of trust and good will and sheer human capital required for democratic governance. All that was left to the individual in Iraq was to attach himself to a mosque or clan or militia. That's why at this earliest stage of democratic development Iraqi national consciousness is as yet too weak and the culture of compromise too underdeveloped to produce effective government enjoying broad allegiance.

Just a month ago the U.S. launched operations against the Mahdi army in Baghdad and was ordered to stop by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. Under pressure, the barricades that we had established around Sadr City to find one of our missing soldiers and to arrest a death squad leader were suspended. This is no way to conduct a war. I believe the government of Prime Minister Maliki is a failure. The problem is not his personality, it's the fact that the coalition on which he depends is predominated by Shiite elements of militias and religious parties, armed and ambitious, at odds with each other and with the very idea of a democratic Iraq.

Is this our fault? I think the answer is no. It's the result of Iraq's first experiment in democracy. When the U.S. went into Iraq, it was not going to replace on tyrant with another. We were trying to begin the planting of democracy in the heart of the Middle East as the one conceivable antidote to terrorism and extremism. In a country that is two thirds Shiite, that meant inevitably Shiite rule. It was never certain whether the long-oppressed Shia would have enough sense of nation or sense of compromise to set aside their own grievances and internal differences and make a generous offer to the Sunnis in order to tame the insurgency and begin a new page in their country's political history. The answer to whether that was going to happen is now in, and the answer is no.

The ruling Shia themselves are lacking in cohesion. Just a month ago there was a fight in the city of Amara between the two leading Shiite political parties, a bloody and brutal fight, which actually holds out some hope for what might help to ameliorate the situation in Iraq--namely, a change in structure of the coalition, which is now Shiite with the Kurds as a junior partner, and try to establish a new government with a new set of coalition partners, which would involve secular and religious Shiites who would reach out to some of the Sunnis, those who recognize their minority status but would be willing to accept a generously offered place at the table. This kind of cross-sectarian coalition almost happened after the election last year. Almost half of the parliament consists of these Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni elements. It seems to me that unless there is a change in the government, which has clearly not succeeded, we are not going to succeed. You can tinker with American tactics and troop levels all you want, but unless the Iraqis can establish a government of unitary purpose and resolute action, the simple objective of the war--leaving behind a self-sustaining, democratic government--will not be achieved.

Given these circumstances, we now have a situation in Washington after the election, which is looking for a kind of exit, honorable or not, and that is why I think there is a lot of discussion about negotiations with Iran and Syria, which I think ultimately would amount to nothing more than cover for an American retreat. I don't think that is the only alternative, however. I think there is at least a chance of trying to save the situation not only in Iraq, but the general idea of trying to establish more liberal democratic and less confrontational governments in that region. Part of that effort I think has to be a very important and exerted effort now to try to rescue the Lebanese government, which in the next week or so will be under threat of demonstration, perhaps even civil war and perhaps even open Syrian intervention against it. That's why even though our situation today is a rather gloomy one and there is a lot of disorientation and despair, I think that if we do not lose our nerve and lose our way, there is a way to actually emerge from this two-year era of setback.

What is becoming clear is that the overall international strategic situation in which we had unchallenged hegemony for the first decade and half the unipolar moment is now over. We are seeing on the horizon the rise of something that is always expected in any unipolar era, which is an alliance of others who oppose us.

Historically, whenever one country has arisen above all the others in power, anti-hegemonic alliances immediately formed against them. The classic example is the alliance against Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, and of course the alliances against Germany from World War I to World War II, particularly in the 1930s, where you had the rise of an aggressive, hegemonic Germany in the heart of Europe. What is interesting about our unipolar era is that whereas we had achieved unprecedented hegemony in the first decade and a half, there were no alliances against us. What I think we are beginning to see now is Iran positioning itself at the center of a regional alliance against us, again with the--Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Sadr--looking to overawe the entire region with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would make it the regional superpower. And Iran is receiving tacit backing for its regional and anti-American ambitions from two great powers: Russia and China. That, I think, is the structure of the adversary that we will be looking at for the decades to come.

As the Bush Doctrine has come under attack, there are those in America who have welcomed its apparent setbacks and defeats as a vindication of their criticism of the policy. But the problem is that that kind of vindication leaves America in a position where there are no good alternatives. The reason that there is general despair now is because if it proves to be true that the Bush Doctrine has proclaimed an idea of democratizing the Arab/Islamic world that is unattainable and undoable, then there are no remaining answers to how to counter ultimately the threat of Islamic radicalism.

It remains the only plausible answer--changing the culture of that area, no matter how slow and how difficult the process. It starts in Iraq and Lebanon, and must be allowed to proceed and not precipitate an early and premature surrender. That idea remains the only conceivable one for ultimately prevailing over the Arab Islamic radicalism that exploded upon us 9/11. Every other is a policy of retreat and defeat that would ultimately bring ruin not only on the U.S. but on the very idea of freedom.


1. Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Random House, 1987), p. 515.

Foreign Policy Research Institute

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