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Is America On The Verge Of Irrelevance?

Essay: Are we witnessing the U.S. empire head into its final decline? Obama is drifting. Republican candidates inspire little confidence. But viewed from Europe, which is more skeptical than ever, it’s worth taking a closer look at a nation with the Peter

Uncle Sam on the fritz (Rich Anderson)
Uncle Sam on the fritz (Rich Anderson)
Alan Posener

BERLIN -- When it's not busy with its own problems, Europe looks across the Atlantic and shakes its head. America would appear to be on an unstoppable downward spiral.

While neo-conservative dreams of the "unipolar moment" disperse, troops are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan, the ups and the downs of the dollar depend on China, and Standard & Poor's has lowered its credit rating - and all the while, the country is politically paralyzed.

Barack Obama's "Yes, we can!" now seems like a stale joke. Nothing can move the president, and Congress is busy blocking itself. Democrats and Republicans were unable to agree on a savings program, while Republicans prepare to block an extension of tax cuts that Obama introduced to try and improve the economic situation.

Conservative hatred of the president is so great that they would rather choke the modest upturn than allow him to enjoy a modest success. Under George W. Bush, the U.S. was a source of great irritation for Europeans; under Obama, it just seems irrevelant. Seldom has America seemed so alien.

The sense of alienation becomes full-blown apprehension when one takes a look at the Republican candidates for president. An early favorite was the execution-happy governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who doesn't believe in evolution, does believe in punishing gay intercourse, and thinks the economic crisis is a lesson from God.

Then came Herman Cain. The Baptist, a former manager of a pizza chain and proponent of a flat tax, would prohibit both immigration and abortion. Before allegations of sexual harassment took the steam out of his campaign, "The Hermanator" was a darling of the Tea-Party movement.

Another star is Michele Bachmann. She believes that "Intelligent Design" should be taught in schools, calls climate change "voodoo," thinks that the movie "The Lion King" is gay propaganda (because the music was written by Elton John) and that Obama is a Marxist.

But now it seems, only two candidates really stand a chance: Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. A Mormon, Romney belongs to a religion that not long ago believed blacks and Native Americans were inferior, and openly supported polygamy. (The Church of the Latter-Day Saints has since moved away from these positions.)

Gingrich, as Republican leader in the House of Representatives and the country's "moral majority," led the move to impeach Bill Clinton for his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. As has since been revealed, the thrice-married serial adulterer Gingrich was at the time having an affair with a 20-something staffer whom he has since married, and for whom he converted to Catholicism. To call his behavior hypocritical is understating the case.

So is this America? A declining, decadent empire that like late Rome is overrun by populists and fundamentalists telling uneducated masses what they want to hear as the barbarians gather along its borders?

Where "populist" is an honorable thing

Caution is advised here. America has often been written off, particularly when its president is in a weakened position: think of the great Lyndon B. Johnson's last years, the paranoid end of Richard Nixon, the "malaise" diagnosed by Jimmy Carter, or Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression. And the country always managed to pull itself back together -- there was always a Franklin D. Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan to give the U.S. a sense of its own identity and its place in the world.

As far as the Tea Party movement is concerned, it is part of a long tradition of anti-authoritarian revolts against Washington. Not for nothing does it take its name from the first Tea Party, when by way of protest against import duties imposed by the British parliament, citizens of Boston went aboard ships and dumped cargoes of tea into the harbor.

America was founded by people who were allergic to any concentration of power and it remains a country of countless small towns that mistrust the Big City, Big Business, and Big Government.

At the end of the 19th century, poor farmers formed the People's Party, aka, the Populists, that was hostile to banks, large property owners and other elites. Even today the word "populist" has an honorable ring to it. America remains an anti-authoritarian nation, and its reluctance to grow up is one of its strengths. College drop-out Steve Jobs would probably never have had a career in Germany.

And the Republicans? Without trying to gloss over their irresponsible policy of blocking measures in Congress, or their susceptibility to being seduced by people like Sarah Palin, one can't help but be impressed by the new ideas emanating from the party following the demise of the Neocons – one thinks of Cain's tax reform, or some of the ideas of libertarian Ron Paul.

Even if Newt Gingrich's past or Mitt Romney's religion cause some heads to shake, both are experienced center-right politicians. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney introduced health care reforms that formed the basis for the "Obamacare" so despised by radical Republicans. And Gingrich has become a bona fide ideas man, rather than a hardened ideologue, who worked with Hillary Clinton on health reform.

Each one of them would be a good challenger for Barack Obama. Yes, the president is still very much there, and it would be a mistake to write him off. If he manages to win re-election in 2012, he just might provide the leadership that Europe – itself, deeply divided and drifting into recession – urgently needs.

Read the original article in German

Photo - Rich Anderson

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