Emmanuele Ottolenghi longs for the old days when the U.S. was derided as a “hyperpower”:
America was also much more aloof and restrained than the French quip about l’hyperpuissance suggests. America failed to stop genocides in our time — think of Rwanda or Sudan. It walked away from crises it could not understand, let alone solve — think of Somalia. It misunderstood old enemies — think of North Korea. But its unchallenged supremacy was unquestionable when the French objected. And where America chose to act, it did make a difference. The Balkans would not be at peace today had it not been for America’s hyperpower. Multilateralism there, by contrast, only produced deadlock and supervised crimes against humanity.
It’s remarkable that Ottolenghi can look back at the “hyperpower” era at the turn of the century and never mention the enormous destruction that the exercise of that power caused. The Iraq war receives its only mention when he derides the French for their opposition to it. He describes that opposition as “anti-American,” as if trying to prevent the U.S. from making one of the greatest blunders in our modern history were the act of an unfriendly state. When America chose to act in Iraq, our government certainly “made a difference,” but mostly by way of inflicting and unleashing horrific violence on an entire nation. That violence claimed at least one hundred thousand lives and displaced millions at enormous cost to the U.S. and allied countries, to say nothing of the costs to neighboring countries from the economic disruption and influx of refugees that the war caused.
The Iraq war was primarily waged by the U.S., but there were many others that contributed to the disaster. It is commonly and mistakenly referred to as a “unilateral” action because it had no U.N. authorization and represented a major violation of international law, but Iraq war supporters used to be quite proud to remind everyone that it was a war that dozens of governments officially supported*. One could say that “multilateralism” in Iraq produced mass carnage and supervised crimes against humanity.
Ottolenghi also writes:
America has disengaged. Its president seems to have bought Védrine’s argument. And with that, America’s competitors will gladly take its place. Their contempt for America is worse than their fear, because unlike their fear it feeds on America’s weakness. They will reshape the world in their own image, unless America stops them.
The U.S. still has a large military presence in Afghanistan. Our government routinely launches attacks on targets in numerous countries, and it just orchestrated the overthrow of the Libyan government last year. Except for Iraq, the U.S. has not withdrawn from anywhere in the last eleven years, and our government is establishing new bases overseas. It is even hoping to gain access to a base in Vietnam. The idea that the U.S. has “disengaged” is useful to hegemonists interested in scoring some election-year points against the incumbent, but it’s a preposterous claim. If this is “disengagement,” what would “engagement” look like? America’s competitors are not able to “take its place.” More to the point, other states are not particularly interested in “reshaping” the world in their image. Many Americans attribute ideological ambitions to other states that they don’t actually have.
* Most of these governments were new NATO allies, dependencies or other would-be clients that were trying to curry favor with Washington, and the “coalition of the willing” was obviously an exercise in providing international political cover to what was primarily a U.S. and U.K.-run debacle, but they were all parties to the egregious blunder and massive crime that was the invasion of Iraq.