Signs of Decline

by , July 02, 2005

I see President Bush’s speech Tuesday as a bit of evidence that the empire, at the very moment it seems to hold sway over all and sundry as the “sole superpower,” is in serious decline. That the putatively most powerful man in the world should have so little insight not only into what to do with his power, but how to preserve it, suggests a system that has lost the knack of producing competent leaders

Albert Jay Nock once wrote an essay on the problem of how to figure out whether you are living in a period of civilizational decline or decadence. It’s a trickier proposition than it might seem at first glance. It’s relatively easy to place labels on past decades – though this sometimes leads to historians or commentators saying things like The Sixties (you know, the conceptual Sixties) actually lasted from 1963 to 1974 and the like – and not all that hard (though it can be done too facilely) to detect patterns in the past that seemed to lead ineluctably to conditions in the present.

However, it’s hard to have that kind of perspective on a year or era you’re actually living in. Even if you’re unusually reflective and contemplative, you still spend most of your time in relatively humdrum day-to-day pursuits that take your eyes away from the big picture. What seem like true causes (or more plausible explanations) for events are often hidden at the time, not necessarily due to skullduggery or conspiracy – though these do happen – but because nobody was paying attention or connecting the dots, or the importance of some event became apparent only when other strands were understood more fully.

With all that to cover myself in the likely event that my exercise in prophecy proves spectacularly wrongheaded, the sheer incompetence of the president’s performance is evidence of a larger and perhaps endemic imperial incompetence. As befits what retired Gen. William E. Odom called it, as the title of his recent book, America’s inadvertent empire seldom acknowledges that it is an empire and often doesn’t act in the calculating and shrewd manner other empires have often employed. It simply blunders about, sometimes responding to the trivial and occasionally to the important. I hope that means it is on its way out.

That wouldn’t necessarily mean instant ruins on the plains around the Potomac. Vienna is still a beautiful city and a significant center of culture all these years after the Austro-Hungarian empire ceased to be a significant political player. Rome is worth visiting, as are London, Paris, and Madrid. Amsterdam is delightful, though like most big cities all too expensive. I even liked Berlin when I visited.

You can even make a case that these capitals and the people in them have contributed more to civilization since they ceased to be centers of vast political power than when they were imperial cities with empires that mattered. They all had more charm and a more variegated culture to begin with than Washington (a notoriously parochial place with government as its only significant industry) does, but Washington has a certain charm as well. It would still draw tourists as the less self-absorbed capital of a kinder, gentler United States.

Presidential Cluelessness

The president’s speech on Tuesday suggested not a leader in command of a situation with the dexterity to turn around a setback, but a leader with very little clue about what he needed to do. That strikes me as the kind of leader an empire in decline will throw up. He may be a shrewd politician in a micro sort of way – he clearly is, and he clearly is not the dumb cluck many of his detractors would prefer to believe he is – but he lacks imagination and insight when the problems are larger than persuading a precinct captain or state party leader to fall in line.

It was fairly clear what this speech had to accomplish for the president. As the war in Iraq has deteriorated, the popularity of the war has seriously declined. From the administration’s standpoint it was important to turn that around and bolster support for the war. If that were not the case there would have been small reason to expect the president, who is not considered by friend or foe to be an especially inspirational public speaker, to address the issue in a televised address.

To make the speech a success and restore a bit more credibility to the president and the administration, however, it seemed to me necessary to change tone a little bit, to acknowledge the fact that some of the reasons for things not going as well as expected were rooted in decisions and actions by the administration. After all, Vice President Cheney’s comment that the insurgency was in its “last throes” had been widely ridiculed and belied by recent news of increasing acts of violence. The president needed to acknowledge this and demonstrate that he “got it.”

He was appropriately somber, which was an implicit acknowledgment that things haven’t gone as well as he had hoped. But he didn’t tell Americans how we will know when things are going well enough that the troops who have been on the front lines of this battle for so long can start coming home.

But it’s fascinating that a speech in front of a military audience drew only one sustained round of applause. Was this because the officers assembled at Ft. Bragg thought solemnity was more appropriate to the occasion than whoops and whoo-has or because they were as disappointed in it as many other Americans were?

Lack of Candor

For this important speech, which required a change of tone to suggest that he is really in touch, Bush gave us the same old shtick he has been using since 9/11. Thus, the speech did not address and is unlikely to improve the problem of declining administration credibility on how things are going in Iraq. At a time when 56 percent of Americans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, disapprove of his handling of Iraq, and only 22 percent believe the insurgency is getting weaker, as the vice president said it was not long ago, he couldn’t bring himself to show more candor.

He could have done it without disconcerting the true believers. Wars are unpredictable and chaotic. Mistakes are made, from the top levels of strategic planning to the private in the field. Everybody knows that. And Bush has thrown in comments about how long and difficult the struggle with terrorism will be from the early days.

The American people are mature enough to deal with the possibility that the administration underestimated the amount of opposition U.S. occupation troops would face – and think better of the president for admitting it. It would have lent some credibility to the assertion that they have a handle on it now and can succeed.

Here’s a marker anybody can understand. A recent Brookings Institution study found that the number of insurgent (or terrorist) attacks in Iraq was 10 a day in May 2003, 52 a day in June 2004, and 70 a day last month. Some 25 Iraqi civilians were killed by warfare in May 2003, while 350 were killed in June 2004, and 600 in May 2005.

When those numbers start to decline rather than increase, Iraq will start looking more like a success to Americans. Those markers are more important than numbers of Iraqis trained or constitutional assemblies held. President Bush should know this. Was his reversion to the same-old-same-old because he really doesn’t think they will be getting those numbers down anytime soon, or because he simply doesn’t have the imagination to consider a different way to promote his policies, doesn’t have a clue about the importance of changing tone to reflect changing circumstances, doesn’t have any notion of just how ridiculous this speech was?

Presidential Pattern

In some empires it might not be important for the top man to be much more than a figurehead, but in the United States, for all the accretions of permanent bureaucracy, the president is still quite important. Yet it is clear that we have in that office the possessor of a third-rate mind who doesn’t aspire to intellectual improvement, who views stubbornness in the face of countervailing facts as a virtue rather than a defect, who thinks bravado and empty threats are the equivalent of courage.

That such an intellectual pip-squeak – a frat boy who happened to be born into a family that has been devoted to seeking power for many generations, who equates incuriosity with principle – should not only have ascended to the top but be actively admired by otherwise intelligent people strikes me as a sign of decadence.

But it would be unfair to Dubya to suggest that this is something new. Our previous president was a self-indulgent bubba – though one with an undeniable roguish charm and a certain wonkish fascination with policy – with the morals of an alley cat. Presiding over a period of relative prosperity and good will in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was content to use his office to chase skirts and make connections. His State of the Union addresses were laundry lists of micro initiatives he had no intention of pursuing seriously. Now he golfs with his predecessor, confirming the solidarity of the ruling class against the people.

The president before them, although smarter and better informed than his critics ever acknowledged, got by largely on the stagecraft he learned as an actor. The president before that was an utter disaster, an ineffectual and inveterate micro-manager without a clue about a bigger picture. The president before that was a football player (which is not necessarily an insult but not necessarily an endorsement of intellectual prowess either), and the president before that was a crook.

It all smells like an empire in decline to me.

Read more by Alan Bock