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Potent, But Not Omnipotent

Back in September, the White House released a document entitled, rather pompously, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” Much of the discussion that then followed focused on the document’s explicit endorsement of preemptive action: “The greater the threat, the greater the risk of inaction — and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

As to the remainder of the document, all 12,000 or so words of it, it has been largely ignored — which, all things considered, must be considered a gift to its authors. Had it been read carefully, it would have deserved to be greeted with derision, since it resembles nothing so much as a mad chef’s compote, a mishmash of noble sentiments, hubristic promises and vainglorious pronouncements, spiced by commitments so far beyond either our will or our capacity that they are at best fantasies, at worst, simply, lies. It is as if our chief cook was left alone in an overstocked kitchen and, drunk with power, tossed into the stewpot everything on which he could lay his hands, not only all the comestibles but the cutlery and the kitchen towels, too. (The document is available online at http//

As Michael Ignatieff wisely observes in the January 8 issue of The New York Times Magazine, America now begins to see itself as a new imperium, and it is a daunting challenge to remain a republic while becoming an empire. Nor is American power, unprecedented in human history though it may be, necessarily sufficient to meet the challenge. Potent we may be — but potent is not yet omnipotent.

Think, for example, about two distant developments of recent days, and then ask whether all the billions we spend on national defense are adequate to insulate us from the Lilliputians who would tether us: First, and most obviously, there is Kim Jong Il of North Korea, who may turn out to be the cleverest political leader of the year. He has tied our administration in knots, leaving us confused, a long, long way from potency. True, the administration wasted 18 months, so intent was it on distancing itself from the Clinton policy regarding North Korea.

But others, operating according to their timetables rather than ours, read from their own script — and cast us in a role that is unbecoming a major power. We evidently cannot preempt and simply attack North Korea, not only because we are rather busy elsewhere, but also because North Korea has more than sufficient artillery aimed at Seoul to inflict unacceptable damage on our (resentful) allies there.

Did we not know this while we were practicing a policy that one senior administration official describes as a policy of “hostile neglect?” What, then, to do? Why, obviously to talk with the North Koreans, exactly what we have sworn not to do until they behave. But we cannot compel their behavior. So we will talk, surrounding the talk with a sea of obfuscations that will seek somehow to square the circle, explain away our backtracking.

Or take the government crisis in Venezuela, where there seems no easy or imminent solution to the stalemate between President Hugo Chavez and his opponents. The crisis has little to do with the United States; it is essentially internal, although a more deft American policy might have brokered its resolution by now. But the internal crisis, as it turns out, has potentially devastating external effects: Last year, the United States imported 433 million barrels of oil from Venezuela — some 14% of our crude oil imports. Just now, oil production in that country has been reduced to roughly one-seventh of its pre-crisis level.

A temporary glitch? Not at a time when we are contemplating a war against Iraq, with all the consequent destabilization of worldwide oil supplies. At the very least, we can anticipate a huge rise in the cost of oil, hence also in the costs of the war. Once again, the childish ideology of an increasingly hapless administration — as in the stubborn insistence that the controversial Otto Reich be temporarily appointed assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs — has made matters worse than they otherwise might have been. But the larger point is not that we have erred; it is that we are players in an international community and that we neither write, produce nor direct the unfolding script.

That will come as a distinct disappointment to the authors of the National Security Strategy document, who apparently were simply carried away by their recognition that “The United States possesses unprecedented — and unequaled — strength and influence in the world.” They should have known better. The wretched struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, in which so much American effort has been invested, and that has such immense implications for the larger world, is more than adequate proof that bloated rhetoric is no cure for the inherent messiness of the international community.

Indeed, it does not even provide symptomatic relief. If, as Robert Burns wrote, the “best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley,” what shall we say of schemes that are, to put it mildly, ill-laid, that take account only of our power but not of our limitations?


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