As the American presidential election approaches, the dominant conviction expressed by members of both parties is that the country is gravely in decline. If the wrong man is elected, the nation's spin out of control will accelerate and disasters will follow.
On the left, the most dramatic forecast of catastrophe to be heard is some version of fascism -- minus the racial component in historical fascism -- generated by the plutocratic forces already at work in the country, the new militarism produced by professionalization of the military and the "war on terror," and the disregard and erosion of constitutional legality begun under the George W. Bush presidency and continued in the Obama administration. This scenario's plausibility is strengthened by its arising from well-established domestic precedents.
On the right, the nightmare scenario that accompanies the prospect of re-election of Barack Obama is, in its most modest Republican Tea Party version, "European-style government," with all of the "socialist" horrors that implies, beginning with universal medical care and finishing with "death panels." Obamaism means to these voters a version of current Obama government with existing policies extended to the 10th power -- which, in the minds of many Republican voters (and commentators), spells Communism with all but the gulag.
This of course is nonsense. The national debate is a disgrace. My unexaggerated but depressed opinion of the outcome is the one that current electoral voting polls suggest: a stalemate, much like the one the nation now suffers.
With international affairs and U.S. foreign policy, one departs the farce for dangerous waters. The United States is the most heavily armed nation on earth and has deployed its forces worldwide. Its elites are committed to a variety of ideologies and theories, nearly any of which could provoke war -- conceivably a war in which the American "homeland" could be attacked and American forces, in their vast deployments, could suffer losses of Vietnam or Korean War scale, and possibly worse.
Bashar al-Assad's Syria is an ally of Iran, and one current anti-American/anti-Israeli theory holds that the Syrian uprising was instigated by them and is indirectly supported in order to remove a functioning Syrian state from the Middle Eastern scene, an action linked to a forthcoming attack on Iran by Israel, supported by the United States. (Both President Obama and Mitt Romney in recent days renewed their avowed commitments to such an attack.) Retaliation by Iran, possibly more effective than now generally thought in the United States, has frequently been described in western analyses.
Turn from the Middle East to Asia, and the supposed threat of a Chinese "bid to rule the world" (or at least all of Asia). This is a notion that in Washington and in American popular opinion is taken much more seriously than it should be, offering the opportunity for very bad mistakes.
In the current Prospect magazine, Mark Kitto reflects on his thirty-six years of work and residence in China. He offers valuable judgments on that country, its fragile economy and massive property bubble, its widespread public and private corruption, its ethnic tensions, worker and rural discontent, and its obscurantist party leadership (now in profound crisis, as evidenced by the explosive Bo Xilai/Gu Kailai scandal, on the eve of meetings expected to set the nation's leadership for years to come).
China, as Kitto says, bulks massively in the world because of its size and GDP. But the last time it was a dominant power was when the world did not include the Americas and an enlightened Europe (or nuclear weapons). He writes: "[There] is an increasing likelihood that there will be upheaval in China within the next few years, sparked by that property crash. ... Some commentators think that it will lead to revolution, or a collapse of the state. There are good grounds [for thinking this]." The United States would do well to treat China with the greatest prudence now and for the foreseeable future.
The Obama government escalated the Afghan War ("the right war," it said), failed, and now wants out, but will not get out without major costs. It still has global ambitions, as attested by its expanding activities in Central Asia and new escalation into Africa. The president's rival, Mitt Romney, has just concluded a foreign trip whose main achievement was to demonstrate his profound ignorance of the world abroad -- even of Britain, where he made a buffoon of himself, and Israel, where his smarmy obsequiousness embarrassed even his hosts. What has the United States done to deserve this?
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).