A hyperpower with feet of mud

The US may not quite yet be perceived as the “pitiful, helpless giant” that haunted the dreams of Richard Nixon 35 years ago, but it’s getting close. Its military, still determined to achieve “full-spectrum dominance” may yet be the most powerful in the world, but it still can’t subdue a rag-tag, minority insurgency with no major external sources of support in a middling-sized nation in a region it has considered a “vital interest” for more than a generation.

And its wealth may be fabulous by global and world historical standards, but its increasing concentration in private hands has led to a dramatic deterioration in its public infrastructure that goes far in explaining why more than a million people were transformed into environmental refugees over the past two weeks, and at least several thousand more died from drowning, malnutrition and neglect.

Its technology may be second to none, but, in the hands of hopelessly incompetent, unaccountable and, in some cases, corrupt politicians and their cronies, it can provide neither adequate supplies of electricity to 24 million Iraqis two years after taking control of Baghdad, nor adequate supplies of food, clean water, sanitation or shelter to thousands of its own citizens within just a few days of a major natural disaster.

Indeed, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, top officials still cannot figure out the logistics of how to receive unprecedented offers of technical assistance from foreign nations. Feet of mud may actually be a more fitting metaphor, both the literal mud of New Orleans and the figurative mud of the quagmire in Iraq, where US ground forces find themselves both bogged down and overstretched at the same time. To much of the rest of the world, the “High and Mighty”, the strutting pose in which the Bush administration, more than others in modern US history, has swaggered since it ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan nearly four years ago, has become the “Humbled and Muddy”.

Even prominent neo-conservatives who launched their “national greatness” mantra in the late 1990s had become grumpy about Bush’s failure to rally the nation behind a renewed sense of national purpose and manifest destiny. But Katrina, according to the latest surveys taken earlier this week, has brought him down yet several more notches, leaving him with the loyalty of hard-core Republicans, and virtually no one else. That Bush should receive a significant amount of the blame was not surprising given his position, after all, as president and his post-Katrina performance, particularly his late return from summer vacation, his light hearted first visit to the disaster area last week, during which he praised Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown for doing “a helluva job”, and his refusal to take even the slightest responsibility for the federal government’s obvious failures in dealing with the crisis.

Such Potemkin Village-like appearances have been typical under this presidency, although, in this case, the firefighters may actually have been able to save lives had they not been diverted by FEMA which, with the support of Democratic lawmakers Thursday, just received a new appropriation of more than $50 billion to deal with the crisis. — IPS