The Sole Superpower Syndrome

by Michael Klare

In These Times magazine, March 1998


The U.S. rush to judgment in Iraq-one could say the frenzy to bomb-is the product of a deeper psychosis in American foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. leaders have been possessed by what can be described as the "sole superpower syndrome"-a sense of nearly godlike power derived from the absence of any balancing forces in the international system. With no curbs on American adventurism, U.S. leaders are undeterred from engaging in impetuous and ill-conceived actions like the impending attack on Iraq.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not nostalgic for the Cold War. The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union produced ever more horrific weapons of war, and introduced the prospect of thermonuclear Armageddon. I do not wish to return to that condition. But the bipolarity of the Cold War, coupled with the perfectly understandable caution of U.S. and Soviet allies, discouraged impetuous and provocative behavior on either side. Today, we lack such built-in restraints, so the sole superpower syndrome reigns unchecked.

At first, expressions of this syndrome were limited and sporadic. Clinton was hesitant to go into Bosnia, and procrastinated for three years. Lately, however, the episodes have become more frequent and pronounced: the determination to proceed with NATO expansion, despite its devastating impact on U.S. Russian relations; the cavalier campaign to drop Boutros Boutros-Ghali as secretary general of the United Nations; and the glee with which Washington has dictated surrender terms to the fallen Asian "tigers."

The planned attack on Iraq must be seen against this backdrop. Like other recent developments, it has come about in a world in which no state is bold enough or strong enough to tell the sole superpower that it is behaving in an arrogant, and perhaps reckless, fashion. In each instance, Washington has sallied forth, relying on its own (often misguided) counsel and failing to calculate the consequences.

Let us look at the Iraqi case. Supposedly, the United States is acting to destroy Saddam Hussein's remaining capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. That Hussein sought to produce such weapons before Operation Desert Storm is not in doubt. But the war, and U.N. action afterwards, destroyed all of his weapons plants and laboratories, leaving only what could be easily removed and hidden: laboratory samples, scientific instruments, computer gear and so forth. These small remnants cannot be destroyed through an air campaign such as that contemplated by the Department of Defense. On the other hand, they cannot be used to mass-produce weapons of mass destruction (without the construction of major new facilities). So the impending raids will neither destroy a significant target nor protect us from a genuine threat.

This being the case, it is apparent that U.S. leaders are being driven by other, less obvious considerations. In my view, the main objective here is a show of force for its own sake-to remind the world, and potential adversaries like Saddam Hussein, that the United States has the power to destroy any military challenger (or combination of challengers), and will do so when aroused. This would explain the president's evident determination to proceed with the attacks despite a stunning lack of support by our allies.

This is hubris, pure and simple. And history teaches us that those who are possessed by hubris often fail to see the dangerous and self-destructive consequences of their acts. In this case, we can only speculate as to what those consequences might be-but we can assume that they are likely to be serious. In one scenario, the United States could so destabilize Iraq as to unleash a whirlpool of chaos throughout the Persian Gulf; in another, U.S. action could so inflame Muslim sentiment in the region that it ignites a new wave of anti-American upheavals. An attack is also certain to scuttle any short-term hopes of reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Whether or not the attacks occur and any of these scenarios come to pass, we have to grasp the main point here: The U.S. foreign policy leadership has been infected with an unhealthy tendency to hubris, with unforeseeable and potentially dangerous consequences. If we are to promote peace and stability, therefore, and act in the best interests of the nation, we must create a countervailing force to the sole superpower syndrome. This means building a grass-roots network of foreign policy activists, linked to peace and human rights networks around the world. Only in this fashion can we hope to keep the prevailing psychosis in check.


Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., and the author of Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America's Search for a New Foreign Policy (Hill & Wang).

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