Monday, January 31, 2005

What We Do With A REALLY FREE MEDIA...Stomp it OUT!

January 30, 2005
Under Pressure, Qatar May Sell Jazeera Station

WASHINGTON - The tiny state of Qatar is a crucial American ally in the Persian Gulf, where it provides a military base and warm support for American policies. Yet relations with Qatar are also strained over an awkward issue: Qatar's sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the provocative television station that is a big source of news in the Arab world.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other Bush administration officials have complained heatedly to Qatari leaders that Al Jazeera's broadcasts have been inflammatory, misleading and occasionally false, especially on Iraq.

The pressure has been so intense, a senior Qatari official said, that the government is accelerating plans to put Al Jazeera on the market, though Bush administration officials counter that a privately owned station in the region may be no better from their point of view.

"We have recently added new members to the Al Jazeera editorial board, and one of their tasks is to explore the best way to sell it," said the Qatari official, who said he could be more candid about the situation if he was not identified. "We really have a headache, not just from the United States but from advertisers and from other countries as well." Asked if the sale might dilute Al Jazeera's content, the official said, "I hope not."

Estimates of Al Jazeera's audience range from 30 million to 50 million, putting it well ahead of its competitors. But that success does not translate into profitability, and the station relies on a big subsidy from the Qatari government, which in the past has explored ways to sell it. The official said Qatar hoped to find a buyer within a year.

Its coverage has disturbed not only Washington, but also Arab governments from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. With such a big audience, but a lack of profitability, it is not clear who might be in the pool of potential buyers, or how a new owner might change the editorial content.

Administration officials have been nervous to talk about the station, being sensitive to charges that they are trying to suppress free expression. Officials at the State and Defense Departments and at the embassy in Qatar were reluctant to comment. However, some administration officials acknowledged that the well-publicized American pressure on the station - highlighted when Qatar was not invited to a summit meeting on the future of democracy in the Middle East last summer in Georgia - has drawn charges of hypocrisy, especially in light of President Bush's repeated calls for greater freedoms and democracy in the region.

"It's completely two-faced for the United States to try to muzzle the one network with the most credibility in the Middle East, even if it does sometimes say things that are wrong," said an Arab diplomat. "The administration should be working with Al Jazeera and putting people on the air."

In fact, since the Iraq war, Mr. Powell and even Mr. Rumsfeld have been interviewed by Al Jazeera, though Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush have not. But when the interim government of Iraq kicked Al Jazeera out of the country last August, the Bush administration uttered little criticism.

The administration's pressure thus encapsulates the problems of "public diplomacy," the term for the uphill efforts by Washington to sell American policies in the region.

Some administration officials acknowledge that their "public diplomacy" system is fundamentally broken, but there is disagreement on how to fix it. Two years ago, the United States launched its own Arab television network, Al Hurra, but administration officials say it has yet to gain much of a following.

Among the broadcasts criticized by the United States were repeated showings of taped messages by Osama bin Laden, and, more specifically, the reporting early last year, before Al Jazeera was kicked out of Iraq, of the journalist Ahmed Mansour, that emphasized civilian casualties during an assault on Falluja. The network also reports passionately about the Palestinian conflict.

Some American officials said that Mr. Mansour was subsequently removed from that assignment, but a spokesman for Al Jazeera in Qatar, Jihad Ballout, said that was "utterly false." He said Mr. Mansour's two public affairs shows were still on the air.

Administration officials say debates within the American government over what to do about Al Jazeera have sometimes erupted into shouting matches.

"One side is shouting, 'We have to shut them down!' and the other side is saying 'We have to work with them to make them better,' " said an administration official who has taken part in the confidential discussions. "It's an emotional issue. People can't think of it rationally."

Part of the problem, that official said, is that much of what Al Jazeera does to inflame emotions over Iraq is standard fare on cable television, like endless repetition of scenes of civilian deaths. There have been occasions when Pentagon criticism focused on images that were also running on CNN and other stations at the same time, he said.

American officials have also charged that Al Jazeera has shown up suspiciously quickly after bombing attacks in Iraq, and they have suggested that the network's correspondents may have been tipped off in advance. But the administration official said recently that there was no evidence for such a charge and that it was no longer repeated, though it had not been formally withdrawn.

Al Jazeera officials denied that there had ever been any such collusion, noting that they have not had crews in Iraq since August in any case. They also said that they went out of their way to get American comment for stories and that they often broadcast briefings of Pentagon officials and Mr. Rumsfeld's news conferences.

"We understand that Americans are not happy with our editorial policies," said Ahmed Sheikh, the network's news editor. "But if anyone wants us to become their mouthpiece, we will not do that. We are independent and impartial, and we have never gotten any pressure from the Qatari government to change our editorial approach."

Leading the discussion with Al Jazeera, American officials said, was Ambassador Chase Untermeyer in Qatar and his press spokesman, but both declined to be interviewed. Mr. Sheikh said that he had heard complaints from them about incorrect information but that Al Jazeera "never puts anything on the air before we check it."

A recent decree from the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, said Al Jazeera would be converted to a privately owned "company of participation," which Mr. Ballout, the station spokesman, said would most likely be owned by shareholders in the Arab world. But little has happened since then, and now new people have been put on the board to facilitate its sale.

Mr. Sheikh said that Al Jazeera's budget last year was $120 million, including a subsidy of $40 million or $50 million from Qatar. Mr. Ballout said one reason for the shortfall was that businesses were afraid to advertise because of criticism they might get from Arab governments and the United States.

"We feel aggrieved that Al Jazeera's popularity has not been rewarded with the advertising it deserves," said Mr. Ballout. "The merchant families in control in the Persian Gulf feel they cannot sustain their position if they are not part of the status quo."

An American official noted that Al Jazeera had not only alienated the United States but had also angered officials in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and many other countries by focusing on internal problems in those nations. "They must be doing something right," he said.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Here's How We Treat The Gitmo

My Nightmare of Torture and Assault,
by Briton Held in Guantanamo
By Severin Carrell, Raymond Whitaker, and Andrew Buncombe
The Independent U.K.

Sunday 30 January 2005

One of the four Britons freed from Guantanamo Bay last week has alleged being tortured, nearly suffocated and repeatedly assaulted in American detention, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

In the first detailed account to emerge since their release, Moazzam Begg, 35, from Birmingham, has accused his US captors of threatening his family, killing fellow detainees, and interrogating him more than 250 times. His 25-page testimony was written in solitary confinement at Guantanamo Bay last year for an American tribunal hearing.

It details, for the first time, why he visited Islamist training camps in Afghanistan, and describes the night in 2002 when he was captured in Pakistan by US agents.

Mr Begg claims that while he was held by the Americans at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in 2002, he was "dragged into an isolation room, my hands shackled from behind to my ankles, and a suffocating hood placed over my head. I was struck about the head several times, then left in that manner on the floor for several hours, only to be interrogated again."

Mr Begg, who used to run an Islamic bookshop in Birmingham, is recuperating in a safe house with his family after arriving back in the UK on an RAF jet last Tuesday with fellow detainees Feroz Abbasi, 24, Richard Belmar, 25, and Martin Mubanga, 32, all from London. All four men were held by anti-terrorism police for questioning for nearly 24 hours before being released without charge.

However, speculation is increasing that the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, will seek court orders to place the men under strict controls under new emergency anti-terrorism powers that he is now seeking. Mr Clarke said last week he wants the power to put suspected terrorists and their immediate families under house arrest, or to impose very strict bail-style controls on their movements and behaviour.

The Government insists these powers are chiefly in response to the ruling last month by nine Law Lords that the jailing of 11 foreign men without trial, including the radical Islamic cleric Abu Qatada, was illegal. Sources in the US administration suggested that the new measures were part of the guarantees given by Britain before the four detainees were leased from Guantanamo Bay. The Pentagon insisted last week that the four continue to pose a "significant threat", and security sources in Britain are making similar claims about the 11 men detained in Belmarsh prison and other jails.

Lawyers for the four ex-Guantanamo detainees now suspect that they all face court orders that could force them to live under strict bail conditions, including restrictions on their movements and use of computers, and the possible surrender of their passports.

Last night, Gareth Peirce, the lawyer for Mr Begg and Mr Belmar, said: "It's pretty obvious that the timing of their release with Mr Clarke's announcement is not coincidental. It's a complete police state if all these powers come in."

In his testimony, Mr Begg alleges that he was "coerced" into signing a false confession at Guantanamo Bay on 13 February 2003 by the same US interrogators who had allegedly tortured him at Bagram airbase. He had signed the confession, which claimed that he was a member of al-Qa'ida, with "memories fresh [with] the threats of summary trials, life imprisonment and execution". He added: "They reiterated the previous threats."

In further passages of his diary, Mr Begg alleges that he saw US interrogators using a series of illegal practices to extract confessions from detainees. At Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, he claims, interrogators used "sleep deprivation; racial and religious taunts; being chained to a door for hours - with a suffocating plastic sandbag as a hood; arm twisting and forced bowing; and several beatings."


Go to Original

ACLU Calls On Gonzales to Appoint
Special Counsel on Torture Abuses
American Civil Liberties Union | Press Release

Sunday 30 January 2005

Full criminal investigation of civilian officials must be free of political pressure.

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today called upon senators to insist - prior to voting on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general - that he commit to immediately appoint an outside special counsel to investigate and prosecute any criminal acts by civilians in the torture or abuse of detainees by the U.S. Government.

"In America, no one is above the law, even those at the highest level of government," said Christopher Anders, an ACLU legislative counsel. "Senators should demand now that Gonzales show the American people that he is beholden not to the political sways of the White House, but to the interests of truth and justice, by committing to the immediate appointment of an outside special counsel to investigate any and all criminal conduct by civilians in the use of torture and abuse against prisoners."

At his confirmation hearing, Gonzales failed to adequately answer inquiries from both sides of the aisle about the Bush Administration's policies on the torture and abuse of prisoners and detainees. The ACLU said that the appointment of an outside special counsel - with full investigatory and prosecutorial powers - is the only way to ensure that all civilians who violated federal laws against torture will be held responsible

In a letter distributed to senators, the ACLU said that a three-prong test outlined in the Justice Department's own regulations regarding the appointment of an outside special counsel has been met. The prongs include:

The requirement that "criminal investigation of a person or matter [must be] warranted," is met by the clear record of high-level government officials changing U.S. policy on the treatment of prisoners. This record was highlighted by the example of the Justice Department's December 30, 2004 memorandum that rejected and replaced an August 1, 2002 memo that narrowly interpreted "torture" under the Anti-Torture Act. Incredibly, acts such as burning, electric shocks, prolonged intense noise, amputation of a finger or similar disfiguring harm, use of stress positions, or prolonged exposure to heat or cold would not have fit within the meaning of "torture" as explained by the August 1, 2002 memorandum. The new memorandum, finalized just one week before the Gonzales confirmation hearing, expands the range of actions considered criminal. In short, while U.S. laws had not changed, the Department's interpretation of them had. Therefore, the ACLU said, it is likely that criminal acts occurred under the looser interpretations in effect for more than two years.

The requirement that an "investigation or prosecution of that person or matter by a United States Attorney's Office or litigating Division of the Department of Justice would present a conflict of interest for the Department," is met by the fact that then White House counsel Gonzales, numerous Justice Department and Defense Department officials, along with Vice President Cheney's counsel and top officials of the CIA reportedly were intimately involved with the formulation of one or another of an array of policies withdrawing protections against torture or abuse of prisoners. Gonzales and Justice Department attorneys cannot fully and fairly investigate a matter in which he and other high-level Administration officials will necessarily at least be subject to questioning.

Finally, the requirement that "Under the circumstances it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside Special Counsel to assume responsibility for the matter," is met. The images of the abuses at Abu Ghraib are still etched in the national memory, and despite oversight hearings, inquiries from members of Congress, and litigation under the Freedom of Information Act, the American public still does not have a complete picture on the extent and causes of torture and abuse.

"It is time for the Senate to demand accountability and responsibility," Anders added. "A small number of enlisted men and women in the military and a few low-ranking military officers should not be the only individuals held responsible for the torture and abuse that repulsed all Americans, if civilians were also engaged in criminal conduct. The American people deserve to know the truth, and justice must be served."


The ACLU's letter to the Senate can be read at:

The ACLU's report on Gonzales's civil rights and civil liberties record is available at:

Information about the ACLU's Freedom on Information Act lawsuit on the torture documents is at:


January 30, 2005
The Doctrine That Never Died

SURELY some bright bulb from the Council on Foreign Relations in New York or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton has already remarked that President Bush's inaugural address 10 days ago is the fourth corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. No? So many savants and not one peep out of the lot of them? Really?

The president had barely warmed up: "There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants ... and that is the force of human freedom.... The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. ... America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one..." when - bango! - I flashed back 100 years and 47 days on the dot to another president. George W. Bush was speaking, but the voice echoing inside my skull - a high-pitched voice, an odd voice, coming from such a great big hairy bear of a man - was that of the president who dusted off Monroe's idea and dragged it into the 20th century.

"The steady aim of this nation, as of all enlightened nations," said the Echo, "should be to strive to bring ever nearer the day when there shall prevail throughout the world the peace of justice. ...Tyrants and oppressors have many times made a wilderness and called it peace. ...The peace of tyrannous terror, the peace of craven weakness, the peace of injustice, all these should be shunned as we shun unrighteous war. ... The right of freedom and the responsibility for the exercise of that right cannot be divorced."

Theodore Roosevelt! - Dec. 4, 1904, announcing to Congress the first corollary to the Monroe Doctrine - an item I had deposited in the memory bank and hadn't touched since I said goodbye to graduate school in the mid-1950's!

In each case what I was hearing was the usual rustle and flourish of the curtains opening upon a grandiloquent backdrop. But if there was one thing I learned before departing academe and heading off wayward into journalism, it was that these pretty preambles to major political messages, all this solemn rhetorical throat-clearing - the parts always omitted from the textbooks as superfluous - are inevitably what in fact gives the game away.

Theodore Roosevelt's corollary to President James Monroe's famous doctrine of 1823 proclaimed that not only did America have the right, à la Monroe, to block European attempts to re-colonize any of the Western Hemisphere, it also had the right to take over and shape up any nation in the hemisphere guilty of "chronic wrongdoing" or uncivilized behavior that left it "impotent," powerless to defend itself against aggressors from the Other Hemisphere, meaning mainly England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

The immediate problem was that the Dominican Republic had just reneged on millions in European loans so flagrantly that an Italian warship had turned up just off the harbor of Santo Domingo. Roosevelt sent the Navy down to frighten off the Italians and all other snarling Europeans. Then the United States took over the Dominican customs operations and debt management and by and by the whole country, eventually sending in the military to run the place. We didn't hesitate to occupy Haiti and Nicaragua, either.

Back in 1823, Europeans had ridiculed Monroe and his doctrine. Baron de Tuyll, the Russian minister to Washington, said Americans were too busy hard-grabbing and making money to ever stop long enough to fight, even if they had the power, which they didn't. But by the early 1900's it was a different story.

First there was T.R. And then came Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1912 Japanese businessmen appeared to be on the verge of buying vast areas of Mexico's Baja California bordering our Southern California. Lodge drew up, and the Senate ratified, what became known as the Lodge Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The United States would allow no foreign interests, no Other Hemispheroids of any description, to give any foreign government "practical power of control" over territory in This Hemisphere. The Japanese government immediately denied having any connection with the tycoons, and the Baja deals, if any, evaporated.

Then, in 1950, George Kennan, the diplomat who had developed the containment theory of dealing with the Soviet Union after the Second World War, toured Latin America and came away alarmed by Communist influence in the region. So he devised the third corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. The Kennan Corollary said that Communism was simply a tool of Soviet national power. The United States had no choice, under the mandates of the Monroe Doctrine, but to eradicate Communist activity wherever it turned up in Latin America ... by any means necessary, even if it meant averting one's eyes from dictatorial regimes whose police force did everything but wear badges saying Chronic Wrongdoing.

The historian Gaddis Smith summarizes the Lodge and Kennan Corollaries elegantly and economically in "The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1945-1993." Now, Gaddis Smith was a graduate-schoolmate of mine and very much a star even then and has remained a star historian ever since. So do I dare suggest that in this one instance, in a brilliant career going on 50 years now, that Gaddis Smith might have been ...wrong? ... that 1945 to 1993 were not the last years of the Monroe Doctrine? ... that the doctrine was more buff and boisterous than it has ever been 10 days ago, Jan. 20, 2005?

But before we go forward, let's take one more step back in time and recall the curious case of Antarctica. In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt authorized the first official United States exploration of the South Pole, led by Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The expedition was scientific - but also military. The Japanese and the Germans were known to be rooting about in the ice down there, as were the Russians, the British, the Chileans, the Argentines, all of them yapping and stepping on one another's heels. Gradually it dawned on the whole bunch of them: at the South Pole the hemispheres got ... awfully narrow. In fact, there was one point, smaller than a dime, if you could ever find it, where there were no more Hemispheres at all. Finally, everybody in essence just gave up and forgot about it. It was so cold down there, you couldn't shove a shell into the gullet of a piece of artillery ... or a missile into a silo.

Ah, yes, a missile. On the day in November 1961, when the Air Force achieved the first successful silo launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the SM-80, the Western Hemisphere part of the Monroe Doctrine ceased to mean anything at all - while the ideas behind it began to mean everything in the world.

At bottom, the notion of a sanctified Western Hemisphere depended upon its separation from the rest of the world by two vast oceans, making intrusions of any sort obvious. The ICBM's - soon the Soviet Union and other countries had theirs - shrank the world in a military sense. Then long-range jet aircraft, satellite telephones, television and the Internet all, in turn, did the job socially and commercially. By Mr. Bush's Inauguration Day, the Hemi in Hemisphere had long since vanished, leaving the Monroe Doctrine with - what? - nothing but a single sphere ... which is to say, the entire world.

For the mission - the messianic mission! - has never shrunk in the slightest ... which brings us back to the pretty preambles and the solemn rhetorical throat-clearing ... the parts always omitted from the textbooks as superfluous. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," President Bush said. He added, "From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth."

David Gelernter, the scientist and writer, argues that "Americanism" is a fundamentally religious notion shared by an incredibly varied population from every part of the globe and every conceivable background, all of whom feel that they have arrived, as Ronald Reagan put it, at a "shining city upon a hill." God knows how many of them just might agree with President Bush - and Theodore Roosevelt - that it is America's destiny and duty to bring that salvation to all mankind.

Tom Wolfe is the author, most recently, of "I Am Charlotte Simmons."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company |

Gee! Wish I Could have a 5.5% federal tax rate!

January 30, 2005
Corporate Welfare Runs Amok

Earlier this month, Johnson & Johnson became one of the first major American corporations to sign on for a one-year "tax holiday" - a government-sponsored opportunity for American multinationals to bring their foreign profits back to the United States at a puny tax rate of 5.25 percent, compared with the normal corporate rate of 35 percent. Johnson & Johnson intends to repatriate $11 billion. And that is just the beginning of what is shaping up to be an unprecedented government giveaway.

The drug giant Schering-Plough has announced a coming $9.4 billion repatriation, and Eli Lilly has announced one for $8 billion. Many other cash-rich companies, especially in pharmaceuticals and technology, are expected to follow suit. Pfizer is considering whether to repatriate $29 billion in untaxed foreign profits; Hewlett-Packard has $14.5 billion eligible for repatriation; Intel has $6 billion. By the end of 2005, an estimated $100 billion to $500 billion will have found its way home. Over the long run, Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation projects that the holiday will allow companies to avoid $3.3 billion in taxes, an estimate that many tax experts think is low.

The nation's corporate tax rules - combined with spotty enforcement by an underfunded and outmuscled Internal Revenue Service - provide strong incentives for American companies to shift their profits from the United States to low-tax havens, such as Ireland and Luxembourg. Once there, the profits are allowed to grow untaxed by the United States until they are repatriated. That tax deferral is a hugely munificent gesture - as if the country's biggest businesses had been granted their own special I.R.A.'s.

But it wasn't enough for many companies that have piled up excess cash abroad. The Homeland Investment Coalition, a roster of dozens of America's largest corporations, lobbied vigorously - and successfully - for a tax holiday before deigning to repatriate their overseas profits.

Congress's ostensible purpose for allowing the holiday is to unleash a flood of money for job creation, hence the name of the law that includes the holiday - the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. But few of the approved uses for the repatriated funds - such as debt redemption, advertising and a catchall category of "financial stabilization" - will lead directly, if at all, to more jobs. One approved use - the ability to spend the money to buy other companies - would be more likely to create layoffs, as corporate acquisitions usually do.

Companies can also use the money to help pay legal liabilities, which could prove to be a big boon for companies like the drug maker Merck, which is sitting on some $15 billion in untaxed foreign profits and faces an estimated $18 billion in potential claims arising from the Vioxx debacle. Multinationals cannot use the repatriated profits to pay dividends to shareholders, buy back their own stock or pay executives. But because companies have a lot of flexibility in financing their activities, they will generally be able to use the money as they see fit while still meeting the letter of the law.

So the tax holiday blesses rather than curbs tax avoidance and is structured to encourage little if any new domestic economic activity. It establishes a horrible precedent by encouraging companies to leave profits abroad in anticipation of future holidays. It makes fools of companies that have routinely repatriated foreign profits at the full corporate tax rate. And it disadvantages American companies that have no foreign presence and thus no opportunity to reap profits at a discounted tax rate.

All it will really do is what the drafters probably intended all along - further erode the nation's corporate tax base and impugn the system's integrity, in that way building a case for eliminating corporate taxes altogether. That is a lousy way to make policy. Reforms to the corporate tax system must be debated on their merits, not under cover of some phony label like "job creation."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

As Our Empire Fades, some chilling words

January 30, 2005
Lessons for the American Empire

IN 1897, Britain celebrated Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee with grand ceremonies, lavish parties and parades that stretched for miles. It was all in tribute to a monarch who had reigned for 60 years, but it was also a celebration of Britain's unrivaled world power and success. Never before had an empire been as wealthy or as vast, spanning a quarter of the world's population and land mass. Yet within 50 years, the British Empire would vanish.

No living memory survives to compare the speeches, parade and celebrations surrounding President Bush's inauguration with those of Queen Victoria's day. But the president's triumphal tone in his Inaugural Address was just one of a growing number of factors that evoke shades of empires past.

Today the United States is the unrivaled world leader in commerce and political and military force. As such, it faces many of the same questions that have concerned powerful nations for centuries.

Obviously, it is not destined to undergo precisely the same experience as, say, imperial Britain or the Soviet Union. But the history of great powers, particularly in the modern era, offers lessons worth considering in navigating the future.

Economists and historians have long recognized the importance of balance in a nation's spending priorities. Over time, those spending decisions help determine the trajectory of a nation's prosperity and power. A country can run into trouble, for instance, if it consumes too much in military spending and starves its economy of investment. If such a pattern continues, that country's economy won't be productive enough to support further military spending; ultimately, its military will weaken and its power will decline.

In a 1987 book, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," Paul Kennedy, a history professor at Yale, formulated the concept this way: "Without a rough balance between these competing demands of defense, consumption and investment, a Great Power is unlikely to preserve its status for long."

The British Empire was crushed by its unsustainable spending on World War I and World War II. For the Soviet Union, the cold war ultimately proved too much for its planned economy to support.

Today, the United States faces its own difficult choices between the competing demands of security, consumption and investment. Abroad, the Iraq war lingers painfully while other potential conflicts loom in Iran and elsewhere. Domestically, privatization of Social Security could cost a cool $2 trillion or so. And in global commerce, the offshore threat to the labor force and competition for business profits are increasing. Up-and-coming companies based in Asia and elsewhere may one day rival even our most successful corporations. That prospect makes increased investment in research and development and in education a pressing need for the economy. Put all that against the backdrop of the country's already substantial debts, and it is clear that tough decisions need to be made.

Now for those practical lessons.

For starters, nothing lasts forever. The eventual decline of the United States in relative terms is inevitable. But managing measured change is profoundly more desirable than suffering a precipitous fall.

Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard who has written at length about the British Empire, put it this way: "There's a very big difference between declining in the next five years and the next 500 years," he said. "I shouldn't think Americans would like to live through what the British did."

Avoiding a rapid decline has something to do with picking one's battles. According to Professor Ferguson, wars among near-equals can be particularly destructive. Had Britain been able to use its influence to head off World War I, its ensuing decline would have been far less abrupt. But even if avoiding war with Germany might not have been possible, it appears that Britain seriously overestimated its chances of achieving a quick strategic victory. It's a good reminder that military actions are among the most risky a nation can undertake. So far, the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, much weaker nations, are not in themselves likely to seriously injure the United States' position. But concluding the conflict in Iraq has not proved as easy as prewar estimates suggested, and opening a front in Iran or elsewhere could add significant burdens.

Managing a potential decline also requires knowing what the competition is up to. That is not to say a global power can't tread its own path, but if it goes too far out of step with emerging rivals, the balance of power could shift.

For instance, if the United States continues to be the greatest military spender in the world, while its rivals use their resources for economic growth, the current advantages held by the United States will shrink over time.

Of course, when it comes to rivals, the future is notoriously difficult to predict. For years, many commentators said Japan was the primary commercial threat. And many people predicted that it would soon eclipse the United States. That hasn't happened. Today, China is probably the most popular candidate for the next great economic and military power. Many estimates suggest that China's economy could overtake the United States' within 40 years.

History shows that in the long run, economic policy tends to be just as important as military policy when it comes to a country's national security. In the short run, military spending can be supported by borrowing (Britain) or authoritarian measures (the Soviet Union), but eventually the guns belong to those whose economies can afford them.

IN fact, a great power that ignores its economy can become its own worst enemy. According to Professor Kennedy, when great powers have been threatened with decline, they have tended to increase their spending on security; as a result, they starved their economies of needed investment. Such a short-term strategy ultimately cannot be sustained, and the fall can be abrupt.

In the end, Britain's enormous borrowing to pay for two world wars was simply too much for its economy. At the close of World War II, British foreign debt stood at $40 billion, roughly the same size as its entire economy in 1948. "The British lost their empire because they went bust," Professor Ferguson said. "With a potential fiscal crisis looming in the United States, it should be a lesson to us all."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company |