Perhaps it's too soon to render final judgment, but I well recall that John Howard and Mahathir Mohamad, two world leaders who never liked one another, who invariably held a generally high opinion of their own views, and whom I always found fascinating in very different ways, could not agree on the wisdom of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Their perspectives of Iraq were sharply drawn. The plainspoken Australian prime minister would always insist that the need to maintain international security justified the Bush administration's decision to go to war more or less unilaterally.
For his part, the outspoken Mahathir, the long-running Malaysian prime minister (since retired) argued that: True, the invading U.S. military would prevail. However, occupying a far-off country, especially an Arab and Muslim one, would be difficult and so in all probability the Bush administration would lose the peace.
It looks as if history will judge Mahathir to have been the wiser of the two owls. The U.S. military is enmeshed in a vicious insurgency and there may be no way out — except, in fact, to get out, outright.
What's more, the American public increasingly appears to agree. A consensus is developing that things have gone sour since the stunning U.S. blitzkrieg of March 2003. In fact, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 54 percent do not think it was even worth going into Iraq; a separate Newsweek poll found 61 percent disapproving of President Bush's handling of Iraq. All the current opinion indicators are anything but gung-ho for continuing indefinitely.
Bush is a second-term president who cannot, as a constitutional matter, stand for re-election, and his Republican Party is facing the huge biennial congressional election next fall: Every seat in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs. Many of his party faithful are losing faith in his war stewardship.
Washington will either have to increase troop strength on the ground dramatically if it still hopes to control Iraq, or commence troop withdrawal sometime next year if the Bush administration is to minimize the possibility of a voter revolt against Republican candidates. Ultimately, in America, domestic politics usually takes precedence over international concerns, so the guess here is that by early next year, troops will start to come home.
In Asia, the reaction will on the whole be one of relief. The Japanese, the South Koreans and the Australians all committed troops to the Iraq effort, but domestic public opinion there was never enthusiastic. Asia's two giants — China and India — remained aloof, if not quietly critical. The government of Singapore — Malaysia's neighbor — supported the war, but primarily, it seemed to me, from the larger vantage point of the war on terror. Looking back, that link seems to have been a thin one at best.
Thus, America's post-Iraq standing in Asia will erode further. The financing of the war was in great measure supported by the willingness of Asia to buy U.S. dollars, and so America's indebtedness abroad will continue to be no small matter.
What's more, another consequence of the faltering U.S. effort in Iraq is the possibility that China could gain considerable diplomatic ground and national status in Asia. For starters, China stood to the side while the United States blundered into Iraq, and watched quietly — and knowingly — with other Asians as American hubris shriveled in the Mesopotamian heat and dust. In order to pursue its war aims, the Bush administration had to avoid serious bumps with Beijing, a heavy investor in U.S. government securities, and cool the rhetoric about Tokyo emerging as the "Asian U.S. deputy sheriff."
"As it turns out," wrote Johns Hopkins University sociologist Giovanni Arrighi recently, "by getting bogged down in the Iraq quagmire, the Bush administration has been forced to deepen rather than abandon its constructive engagement with China."
China, to be sure, still has very many problems of its own, including an inelastic political system, a daunting rich-poor gap, the ever-volatile Taiwan issue, demoralizing corruption problems and those extremely unfortunate and counterproductive tensions with Japan.
For its part, the U.S. will remain the world's still-dominant military and economic power, to be sure, for the foreseeable future. So it is far too early — perhaps absurdly premature — to label the 21st century as the "Chinese Century." However, it is anything but premature to suspect that the second "American century" in a row will not unfold as effortlessly as its hopeful promoters had so optimistically envisioned. Iraq has really hurt.
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