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America the pitiful

Amid a sea of chaos, suffering and dangers, the only enemy the fat and self-obsessed American nation seems able to identify is the one in the mirror, writes MSNBC ‘s Michael Moran.

With all the crusading moralism that once characterized its foreign policy, the United States is plunging into a dark tunnel marked “impeachment” at precisely the moment in history that its role as the world’s dominant power is beginning to erode. America has ground to a halt over Monica Lewinsky. America’s rivals, meanwhile, reap the rewards.

WITH WASHINGTON’S post-Cold War policies faltering in Russia, in Africa and the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and in Asia, the country’s two political parties are completely disengaged from the world outside the Oval Office. What once went by the name “foreign policy debate” has, in fact, ended. Foreign policy is on auto-pilot. Debate is out; dog-paddle is in.

Since President Bill Clinton began apologizing for lying to the United States about Monica Lewinsky, the world most Americans thought they’d inherited after the fall of the Berlin Wall has begun to come apart. Most Americans won’t have noticed, however, thanks to the bankruptcy of the nation’s political debate and its ugly reflection in an increasingly parochial national media.


Meanwhile, America’s rivals and its outright enemies have been busy. Here’s a short list of major setbacks to U.S. interests abroad in just the past few weeks:

AYATOLDYASO: Iran’s conservative, anti-western mullahs used a trumped-up crisis with Afghanistan as cover to clamp down on those who support the reformist-elected president last year, Muhammad Khatami. Khatami’s election represented an enormous opportunity to wean Iran away from destabilizing radicalism. The United States has put out some feelers, but progress has been slow, in part because of Israel’s opposition. Some analysts believe that window may now be closing for good. At the very least, Khatami’s potential has been diminished. As one State Department official put it to me last week, “It’s not going to turn into ‘Who lost China,’ but there is an element of ‘Why did we fail to win over Iran’?”

CAPITAL SCHISM: The out-of-control capital movements that threaten to put the world into a simultaneous recession show no sign of abating. Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, and Russia have been battered already, and now deceptively placid Malaysia is feeling the heat. Mahatir Mohammed, Malaysia’s prime minister, the latest pseudo-democrat to find his rule under siege, has responded with a crackdown.

Mostly, the repression has been aimed at Mahatir’s protege and ex-finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who dared to point out that the country was nearing bankruptcy.

Mahatir sacked him and then, when protests followed, had him arrested along with several aides. Protests continued Monday.

Meanwhile, the United States and the International Monetary Fund were desperately trying to build a wall of dollars around Brazil, the next target of the capital tide. Some also note that Mexico’s economy, only recently bailed out by the U.S. Treasury, is also near the breaking point. If the U.S. and IMF firewall fails, no one seems sure how to prevent Europe and then the United States from being sucked in as well.

WAY DOWN IN KOSOVO: “It must not take us that long to resolve the crisis that is growing in Kosovo ... This time, we must act with unity and resolve. This time, we must respond before it is too late.” Tough words from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. One problem: she spoke them March 9. Meanwhile, Milosevic has broken several promises to end the shelling of villages and the burning of ethnic Albanian homes. On Monday, the shelling and burning continued, despite a new pledge from Belgrade.

More talk of “NATO’s credibility” may lead to air strikes. But so far, it is Milosevic who looks tough, not NATO, and there is no plan for dealing with the damage that empty threats have done to the U.S.

RUSSIAN FOR THE DOOR: Russia’s reforms, or what passed for reforms before the Aug. 17 collapse of the ruble, are through. The Communist Party has managed to get everything it wanted in the aftermath of the political crisis caused by currency crisis. Opponents of “market reforms” or men with other agendas now dominate Russia’s government.

Communists, meanwhile, manage to dominate the new political landscape without being part of the government, theoretically saving them from the electorate’s wrath in the next elections. Western investors, meanwhile, are leaving fast.


All this, plus a dead-end with Iraq and a stalemated Middle East peace process. The fact is, a decade after the ideological struggles of the Cold War ended, the United States has yet to prove itself the guarantor of anyone’s stability but its own. This doesn’t appear to bother Congress at all — and if it bothers the White House, the Clinton Administration has shown little ability to do anything about it. The result is a reputation that would might be fine for Sweden, India or Australia. But for a country that bills itself as “the world’s last superpower,” it’s a bad omen.

In much of the world outside the United States and western Europe, people and future leaders are asking for some proof of the oft-told benefits of free trade, global financial markets and Pax Americana. Malaysia’s Mahatir, reviled by some for his anti-western tirades, has an unexpected new audience: the Asian capitalists who once thought men like him were their worst enemy.

What a comedown from the beginning of the decade, when Americans spoke of a rising tide of democracy and liberalized markets that would lift all boats. Washington vowed to show China’s communists why Tiananmen Square and “reform communism” were dead-end policies. Now, at the end of the decade, Russia’s reforms are in shambles, Asia’s economies fall like (dare we say) dominos and nuclear proliferation has gone from an “if” to a “when.” China, ironically, is in the catbird seat. Deng Xiaoping warned Russia’s approach to reform would end in anarchy. Who’s arguing now?

But if China looks good, it’s only partly Beijing’s doing. Like the good table tennis players they produce, the Chinese aren’t coming to net, they’re just sending the ball back over. The United States, fat and complacent and paying no attention to the game, is beating itself. Washington has made Deng Xiaoping look like an economic genius. That is quite an accomplishment.

Michael Moran is MSNBC’s International Editor>