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Whose Century?

This was going to be the American Century. When President George W. Bush entered the Oval Office in 2001, he brought with him an inner circle of advisors drawn from the ultra-conservative Project for the New American Century. It was an exhilarating, heady time. The United States had the largest, most vigorous economy in the world and the mightiest military machine in history.

We also had “soft” power: the ability to attract nations to our side, to persuade their leaders and to influence their populations. As long as we were prudent and restrained in the use of our power we had far more allies than enemies. We were popular!

Our charisma and persuasiveness are gone now. We’re essentially alone in Iraq, facing an insurrection that grows more lethal every month. The few foreign leaders who allied themselves with us paid for it later at the polls. All that administration talk about how European nations would have to help us stabilize “postwar” Iraq, because it would be in their best interest, turned out to be hot air. No government is coming to our aid, and the United Nations packed up and left long ago. The president has spent 1,700 American lives and 13,000 wounded in a war with no end in sight.

Lured by fantasy into Iraq, the president now faces the real and growing threat of the other two nations in his “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea. Iran is making headway toward producing nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Iran—unlike the Iraq that Bush invaded—is a sponsor of terrorist organizations, such as Hizbollah, and much more likely to share nuclear weapons with terrorists than Saddam Hussein ever was.

President Bush made it clear he wanted Iran to change or he would change it by force. The people of Iran had experience with that sort of thing. The United States overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government 52 years ago and reinstalled an oppressive monarch. Americans tend to forget it, but Iranians never do. So when Bush gave his speech and followed it by invading Iraq, the government in Iran decided to speed the development of nuclear weapons.

Because the United States and Iran have no diplomatic relations, Bush can do very little. The foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, on behalf of the European Union, are the ones trying to persuade Tehran to put its uranium-enrichment program on hold. All the United States can do is threaten to bring the matter up before the United Nations Security Council, an institution that Bush’s policies have relentlessly weakened.

North Korea poses similar problems for President Bush. After Bush made his menacing “axis of evil” declaration, North Korea responded by saying—surprise!—it had been secretly enriching uranium and was on its way to developing a nuclear arsenal. The Bush administration, ever in love with an Armageddon fantasy, says North Korea already possesses nuclear bombs. Sometimes that nation is said to have three bombs, sometimes two, sometimes half a dozen.

In December 2002, the somewhat reliable CIA said North Korea likely could produce two or more atomic bombs annually through uranium enrichment after 2004. But there’s a big difference between enriching uranium, building an atomic bomb, and setting it off to see if it works. If the Bush administration has credible evidence that North Korea has a workable nuclear bomb, it hasn’t shared that evidence with us citizens.

Bush’s policy is to deal with North Korea only in a setting that includes China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. Russia has no reason to be particularly helpful to the United States, and Japan has little influence in North Korea. South Korea has its own agenda and is far too friendly to North Korea to be a wholly reliable partner in these negotiations. That leaves China as our greatest ally.

According to the White House, China doesn’t want North Korea to develop an atomic bomb because that would mean Japan and South Korea would, in self-defense, acquire nuclear weapons too. Therefore, China will help us by leaning on North Korea. But China isn’t following the script.

During the Bush administration, the United States has been in continual trade disputes with China, has criticized its human-rights abuses and recently has been hammering China to revalue its currency. These are worthy objectives, but none encourage Beijing to help Washington. In Singapore last weekend, Rumsfeld upbraided China, saying it was pouring huge resources into its military and buying large amounts of sophisticated weapons despite facing no threat from any other country. China was unmoved, and pointed out that the United States was spending far more than China on defense. Indeed, the United States spends far, far more on its military than any other nation on Earth, and by some measures it outspends the top 15 added together.

Looming over President Bush’s disastrous foreign policy is China. China, with its rapidly expanding economic power and growing global influence, benefits when the United States is distracted and weakened by ongoing problems with Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Inebriated by the military might at his disposal and enraptured by revenge fantasies, Bush seems not to have noticed China. Yet it’s hard to miss. China’s population is somewhere between 1.3 and 1.6 billion people. That plus or minus error is equal to the entire population of the United States. China devours so much energy producing so many goods that its use of oil is beginning to affect the price of gasoline at pumps in the United States. China produces 80 percent of what Wal-Mart sells. China produces at the low end of the economic scale and at the high end. China holds huge reserves of U.S. currency and U.S. debt obligations. President Bush is spending more than a billion dollars a week in Iraq, pushing us deeper and deeper in debt.

Increasingly, it looks as if the century belongs not to the United States, but to China.

—Gene Mirabelli


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