The Lost Hegemon (pt 1)
Rolling Stone assembled a round-table discussion with Richard Clarke, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Bob Graham, Juan Cole and others (from the military, diplomatic and intelligence services) about three scenarios for the end of the US involvement in the Iraq conflict (note I didn't say the end of the conflict itself). These are no wild-haired radicals; for the most part, they're conservative, traditional DC players. And what they see is grim.
Best Case: "Civil War in Iraq and a Stronger Al Qaeda."
Scheuer [former CIA head of the bin Laden unit]: No matter what happens now, the Islamists will have beaten both of the superpowers -- first the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and now the United States in the heart of Islam. The impact of that in Islamic civilization is going to be enormous. We have made bin Laden a prophet: His organizing concept for Al Qaeda was "The Russians are a lot tougher than the Americans. If we can beat the Russians, then we can eventually beat the Americans." Even more important, Al Qaeda will have contiguous territory on the Arab peninsula to attack from.
Most-Likely Case: "Years of Ethnic Cleansing and War with Iran."
McPeak [former member, US Joint Chiefs of Staff]: We're going to see a full-scale intercommunal war that may not burn out until one side is all dead, all gone. The Kurds would like to sit on the sidelines, but I don't see how they stay out, especially up in the Kirkuk area, where they sit on a lot of oil. This is going to be ethnic cleansing like we had in Kosovo or Bosnia -- but written big, in capital letters. And we can't stop it.
Worst Case: "World War III."
Freeman [former ambassador to Saudi Arabia]: This could become the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in Europe in the 1600s -- a religious schism that blossoms into overt mayhem and murder and massacres and warfare. The various Iraqi factions will obtain the backing of other Middle Eastern states as they conduct their ideological and ethnic struggles. It will be a free-for-all that spreads beyond the anarchic zone of Iraq.
The American presence at the top of the international heap couldn't last forever, but the decline need not have been this fast and this devastating to the planet. It's clear that the Bush administration has so weakened American international power -- military, economic, moral -- that there are few plausible scenarios for American hegemony continuing much longer. We're moving into what may be the most dangerous period in world history, with the confluence of accelerating climate disaster, super-empowered "global guerillas," the likely emergence of singularity-grade material technologies by the end of the next decade, and (of course) the global repercussions of the Iraq catastrophe. But we'll enter this period without any broadly-recognized, broadly-respected international leadership.
Does that make things all the worse?
Or does that give us an unexpected opportunity to adopt unconventional strategies?