The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Friday, January 28, 2005

Paul Krugman: Little Black Lies

The New York Times
January 28, 2005
OP-ED COLUMNIST
Little Black Lies
By PAUL KRUGMAN

Social Security privatization really is like tax cuts, or the Iraq war: the administration keeps on coming up with new rationales, but the plan remains the same. President Bush's claim that we must privatize Social Security to avert an imminent crisis has evidently fallen flat. So now he's playing the race card.

This week, in a closed meeting with African-Americans, Mr. Bush asserted that Social Security was a bad deal for their race, repeating his earlier claim that "African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people." In other words, blacks don't live long enough to collect their fair share of benefits.

This isn't a new argument; privatizers have been making it for years. But the claim that blacks get a bad deal from Social Security is false. And Mr. Bush's use of that false argument is doubly shameful, because he's exploiting the tragedy of high black mortality for political gain instead of treating it as a problem we should solve.

Let's start with the facts. Mr. Bush's argument goes back at least seven years, to a report issued by the Heritage Foundation - a report so badly misleading that the deputy chief actuary (now the chief actuary) of the Social Security Administration wrote a memo pointing out "major errors in the methodology." That's actuary-speak for "damned lies."

In fact, the actuary said, "careful research reflecting actual work histories for workers by race indicate that the nonwhite population actually enjoys the same or better expected rates of return from Social Security" as whites.

Here's why. First, Mr. Bush's remarks on African-Americans perpetuate a crude misunderstanding about what life expectancy means. It's true that the current life expectancy for black males at birth is only 68.8 years - but that doesn't mean that a black man who has worked all his life can expect to die after collecting only a few years' worth of Social Security benefits. Blacks' low life expectancy is largely due to high death rates in childhood and young adulthood. African-American men who make it to age 65 can expect to live, and collect benefits, for an additional 14.6 years - not that far short of the 16.6-year figure for white men.

Second, the formula determining Social Security benefits is progressive: it provides more benefits, as a percentage of earnings, to low-income workers than to high-income workers. Since African-Americans are paid much less, on average, than whites, this works to their advantage.

Finally, Social Security isn't just a retirement program; it's also a disability insurance program. And blacks are much more likely than whites to receive disability benefits.

Put it all together, and the deal African-Americans get from Social Security turns out, according to various calculations, to be either about the same as that for whites or somewhat better. Hispanics, by the way, clearly do better than either.

So the claim that Social Security is unfair to blacks is just false. And the fact that privatizers keep making that claim, after their calculations have repeatedly been shown to be wrong, is yet another indicator of the fundamental dishonesty of their sales pitch.

What's really shameful about Mr. Bush's exploitation of the black death rate, however, is what it takes for granted.

The persistent gap in life expectancy between African-Americans and whites is one measure of the deep inequalities that remain in our society - including highly unequal access to good-quality health care. We ought to be trying to diminish that gap, especially given the fact that black infants are two and half times as likely as white babies to die in their first year.

Now nobody can expect instant progress in reducing health inequalities. But the benefits of Social Security privatization, if any, won't materialize for many decades. By using blacks' low life expectancy as an argument for privatization, Mr. Bush is in effect taking it as a given that 40 or 50 years from now, large numbers of African-Americans will still be dying before their time.

Is this an example of what Mr. Bush famously called "the soft bigotry of low expectations?" Maybe not: it isn't particularly soft to treat premature black deaths not as a tragedy we must end but as just another way to push your ideological agenda. But bigotry - yes, that sounds like the right word.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

LA Times Editorial - No Country Left Behind

LA Times EDITORIAL
No Country Left Behind

President Bush's speech was impressive, and also frightening to those who suspect that he really meant it.

President Bush stood at the apogee of his life Thursday, and he rose to the occasion. A small man (in our view), who became president through accident of birth and corruption of democracy, he has been legitimized by reelection, empowered by his party's control of all three branches of government and enlarged by history (in the form of 9/11). His second inaugural address was that of a large man indeed, eloquently weaving the big themes of his presidency and his life into a coherent philosophy and a bold vision of how he wants this country to spend the next four years.

To summarize: Having won the Cold War, the United States was on "sabbatical." Then, on the "day of fire" — Sept. 11, 2001 — America learns that it is vulnerable. The "deepest source" of our vulnerability is that "whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny." Therefore, "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Furthermore, all people are entitled to liberty because "they bear the image of the maker of heaven and Earth."

And "it is the policy of the United States" to promote democracy "in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Every president talks about America's sacred mission of promoting freedom, and Thursday's speech was peppered with caveats. But from the speech itself and the official spin around it, we are clearly supposed to understand that Bush means something new and more ambitious. And even — or especially — Bush's critics have learned to respect his determination to do what he says he'll do, however much it may contradict the advice of those critics, or reality.

We take this president at his word. And the words are startling.

Bush's counterpoint of freedom and tyranny sounds like Ronald Reagan's, but the underlying analysis is much more radical. The threat to the United States, in Bush's formulation, comes not from the tyrants themselves but from the victims of their tyranny, who are radicalized by oppression and turn their hatred toward these shores. During the Cold War, the United States often supported or promoted tyrannical regimes, as long as they were anti-communist. This was realpolitik—the cynical, Machiavellian approach adopted by presidents since Harry S. Truman signed off on the policy of containing communism.

Bush the Elder was a master practitioner of realpolitik, but the aspirations Bush the Younger declared Thursday are closer to those of Woodrow Wilson: freedom and human rights everywhere, actively promoted by the U.S., by diplomacy and leverage if possible but by war if necessary. And Bush's analysis sounds nearly Marxist, with its emphasis on the radicalizing effects of oppression. When he says that "common sense" dictates that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," he sounds like Jimmy Carter.

There are reasons to be impressed by Bush's new doctrine. There are also reasons to be very afraid. It would be good if this country's foreign policy more closely tracked our professed ideals. It would be disastrous if self-righteous hubris led us into bloody and hopeless crusades, caused us to do terrible things that mock the values we are supposed to be fighting for, alienated us from an unappreciative world and possibly brought home more of the terrorism our neo-idealism is intended to suppress. There is an illustration of all these risks close to hand. But the word "Iraq" did not cross the president's lips Thursday. He referred obliquely to the war there, only in order to say that our troops were fighting for "freedom" — which was not the main reason they were sent over.

Ironically, the dangers of self-righteous hubris in foreign policy were a theme of Bush's first presidential campaign, in 2000, when he called for humility in our global ambitions and pounded the Clinton-Gore administration for what was then called "nation-building." Bush and other Republicans specifically objected to the use of American troops to promote democratic values, as opposed to national security.

Not only does Bush now think otherwise — in the most sweeping terms — but he does not even acknowledge that there is a cost involved or another side to the argument. He makes it sound simple. Terrorism is bad, freedom is good. Coherence comes easier when you don't sweat the details.

For example: It's a lovely thought that freedom invariably saps the will to plant a car bomb. But is it true? When freedom and democracy came to the Balkans, people were liberated to do atrocious things to other people in the name of nationalist enthusiasms. In the Middle East, there is always danger that a "regime change" — by election, rebellion or invasion — will produce a theocracy rather than a democracy.

Bush, or his speechwriter, is not unaware of this, but the president does not brake for anomalies. Bush's rhetoric Thursday chased itself around in circles, declaring that America's goal — freedom and democracy, so that people can choose their own way — is not forcing people to adopt our way, which happens to be freedom and democracy.

In his brief discussion of domestic issues, Bush astonished again by endorsing a "broader definition of liberty" than the one in our founding documents. Bush's domestic agenda, in contrast to his foreign policy, is mostly a conventional Republican brew of tax cuts, deregulation and subsidies for undeserving businesses. But the language is more Democratic than today's Democrats. Liberty does not just mean freedom from government oppression. It means "economic independence," he said. This is civic religion as promulgated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous "Four Freedoms," but by no other president, Republican or Democrat, ever since.

In most other presidents, we would take all this talk with a grain of salt. But we suspect that Bush means it, which will make the next four years interesting, if nothing else.

James Wolcott: Dubya's Zippity Do-Dah Day

Dubya's Zippity Do-Dah Day
Posted by James Wolcott

At NRO's Corner, Kathryn Jean Lopez is impressed by the endorphin surge President Bush displayed during his press conference today.

"I only saw parts of it so I'm not going to be particularly helpful in relaying specifics--but, wow was he in a good mood. You almost get the impression he enjoys doing these now.
Posted at 11:14 AM"

Scroll down a bit and you'll see two earlier entries from the gal they call K'Lo.

"31 DIE [KJL]
in a Marine helicopter crash in Iraq.
Posted at 09:43 AM

"FYI [KJL]
W is holding a press conference at 10 a.m.
Posted at 09:39 AM"

Ponder that a moment. The White House announces a press conference in the morning. After the announcement comes the news that 31 Americans died in a chopper crash in Iraq (6 others died today in seperate incidents). The president takes the podium fresh with the knowledge of that tragedy--and radiates a cheerful disposition bantering with the press about senior citizens and their faulty memories. She can't see something scarily wrong with that? She doesn't spot some sort of emotional disturbance or disconnect? Imagine if Bill Clinton had been chirpy and chipper having just received the news of 31 soldiers dying in the theater of combat--Rush Limbaugh would have devoted three hours to it, and Fox News would have dragged Dick Morris out of the all-you-can-eat buffet for his "expert analysis."

When Bush did address the soldiers' deaths, he said that we "weep and mourn" when Americans die, but as he was saying it his hand was flatly smacking downwards for emphasis, as if he were pounding the table during the business meeting, refusing to pay a lot for a muffler. The steady beat of his hand was at odds with the sentiments he was expressing--he didn't look or sound the least bit mournful or sombre. And why should he? Death doesn't seem to be a bringdown for him. There isn't the slightest evidence that he experiences the anguish LBJ did as casualties mounted in Vietnam. His record as chief executioner in Texas is of a man for whom the death of another is an administrative detail, a power exercise. As Sister Helen Prejean wrote in The New York Review of Books:

"As governor, Bush certainly did not stand apart in his routine refusal to deny clemency to death row petitioners, but what does set him apart is the sheer number of executions over which he...presided. Callous indifference to human suffering may also set Bush apart. He may be the only government official to mock a condemned person's plea for mercy [Karla Faye Tucker's], then lie about it afterward, claiming humane feelings he never felt. On the contrary, it seems that Bush is comfortable with using violent solutions to solve troublesome social and political realities."

Comfortable, hell, he's downright enthusiastic about it. He's so cocky now that he can't even fake a semblance of sorrow after hearing news that would have made most presidents turn ashen.

Frank Rich: Forget Armor. All You Need Is Love

The New York Times
January 30, 2005
FRANK RICH
Forget Armor. All You Need Is Love

JAN. 30 is here at last, and the light is at the end of the tunnel, again. By my estimate, Iraq's election day is the fifth time that American troops have been almost on their way home from an about-to-be pacified Iraq. The four other incipient V-I days were the liberation of Baghdad (April 9, 2003), President Bush's declaration that "major combat operations have ended" (May 1, 2003), the arrest of Saddam Hussein (Dec. 14, 2003) and the handover of sovereignty to our puppet of choice, Ayad Allawi (June 28, 2004). And this isn't even counting the two "decisive" battles for our nouveau Tet, Falluja. Iraq is Vietnam on speed - the false endings of that tragic decade re-enacted and compressed in jump cuts, a quagmire retooled for the MTV attention span.

But in at least one way we are not back in Vietnam. Iraq hawks, like Vietnam hawks before them, often take the line that to criticize America's mission in Iraq is to attack the troops. That paradigm just doesn't hold. Americans, including those opposed to the war, love the troops (Lynndie England always excepted). Not even the most unhinged Bush hater is calling our all-volunteer army "baby killers." This time, paradoxically enough, it is often those who claim to love the troops the most - and who have the political power to help alleviate their sacrifice - who turn out to be the troops' false friends.

There was, for instance, according to the Los Angeles Times, "nary a mention" of the Iraq war or "the prices paid by American soldiers and their families" at the lavish Inauguration bash thrown for the grandees of the Christian right by the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition at Washington's Ritz-Carlton. This crowd cares about the troops much the way the Fifth Avenue swells in the 1936 Hollywood classic "My Man Godfrey" cared about the "forgotten men" of the Depression - as fashion ornaments and rhetorical conveniences. In that screwball comedy, a socialite on a scavenger hunt collects a genuine squatter from the shantytown along the East River. "All you have to do is go to the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel with me," she tells her recruit, "and I'll show you to a few people and then I'll send you right back."

In this same vein, television's ceremonial coverage of the Inauguration, much of which resembled the martial pageantry broadcast by state-owned networks in banana republics, made a dutiful show out of the White House's claim that the four-day bacchanal was a salute to the troops. The only commentator to rudely call attention to the disconnect between that fictional pretense and the reality was Judy Bachrach, a writer for Vanity Fair, who dared say on Fox News that the inaugural's military ball and prayer service would not keep troops "safe and warm" in their "flimsy" Humvees in Iraq. She was promptly given the hook. (The riveting three-minute clip, labeled "Fair and Balanced Inauguration," can be found at ifilm.com, where it has seized the "most popular" slot once owned by Jon Stewart's slapdown of Tucker Carlson.)

Alas, there were no Fox News cameras to capture what may have been the week's most surreal "salute" to the troops, the "Heroes Red, White and Blue Inaugural Ball" attended by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The event's celebrity stars included the Fox correspondent Geraldo Rivera, who had been booted from Iraq at the start of the war for compromising "operational security" by telling his viewers the position of the American troops he loves so much. He joked to the crowd that his deployment as an "overpaid" reporter was tantamount to that of an "underpaid hero" in battle. The attendees from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital, some of whose long-term care must be picked up by private foundations because of government stinginess, responded with "deafening silence," reported Roxanne Roberts of The Washington Post. Ms. Roberts understandably left the party after the night's big act: Nile Rodgers and Chic sang the lyrics "Clap your hands, hoo!" and "Dance to the beat" to "a group of soldiers missing hands and legs."

All the TV time eaten up by the Inaugural froufrou - including "the most boring parade in America," as one network news producer covering it described it to me - would have been better spent broadcasting a true tribute to the American troops in Iraq: a new documentary titled "Gunner Palace." This movie, which opens in theaters March 4, is currently on an advance tour through towns near military bases like Colorado Springs, Colo. (Fort Carson), Killeen, Tex. (Fort Hood) and Columbus, Ga. (Fort Benning). Its directors, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, found that American troops in Iraq often see their lives as real-life approximations of "M*A*S*H," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," and, given the many 21st-century teenagers among the troops, " 'Jackass' Goes to War." But their film's tone is original. This sweet yet utterly unsentimental movie synthesizes the contradictions of a war that is at once Vietnam redux and the un-Vietnam.

Watching "Gunner Palace" - the title refers to the 2-3 Field Artillery's headquarters, the gutted former Uday Hussein palace in Baghdad - you realize the American mission is probably doomed even as you admire the men and women who volunteered to execute it. Here, at last, are the promised scenes of our troops pursuing a humanitarian agenda. Delighted kids follow the soldiers like pied pipers; schools re-open; a fledgling local government council receives a genial and unobtrusive helping American hand. In one moving scene, Specialist James Moats tenderly cradles a tiny baby at an Iraqi orphanage while talking about the birth of his own first son back home: "I've seen pictures but I haven't got to hold him yet." He's not complaining, just explaining. He is living in the moment, offering his heart fully to the vulnerable infant in the crook of his arm.

These scenes are set against others in which the troops, many of them from small towns "that read like an atlas of forgotten America," have to make do with substandard support from their own government. "It'll probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going straight through," says one soldier as he tries to find humor in the frail scrap metal with which he must armor his vehicle. Eventually many of his peers, however proud to serve, are daunted by what they see around them: the futility of snuffing out a growing insurgency, the fecklessness of the Iraqi troops they earnestly try to train, the impracticality of bestowing democracy on a populace that often regards Americans either indifferently or as occupiers. When "The Ride of the Valkyries" is heard in "Gunner Palace," it does not signal a rip-roaring campaign as it did in "Apocalypse Now" but, fittingly for this war, a perilous but often fruitless door-to-door search for insurgents in an urban neighborhood.

It says much about the distance between the homefront and these troops that the Motion Picture Association of America this month blithely awarded "Gunner Palace" an "R" rating - which means that it cannot be seen without parental supervision by 16-year-old high-school kids soon to be targeted by military recruiters. (The filmmakers are appealing this verdict.) The reason for the "R" is not violence - there is virtually none on screen - but language, since some of the troops chronicle their Iraq experience by transposing it into occasionally scatological hip-hop verse.

The Bush administration's National Endowment for the Arts, eager to demonstrate that it, too, loves the troops, announced with much self-congratulatory fanfare that it will publish its own anthology of returning veterans' writings about their wartime experience ("Operation Homecoming") - by spring 2006. In "Gunner Palace," you can sample this art right now, unexpurgated - if you're over 16. Here's one freestyle lyric from Sgt. Nick Moncrief, a 24-year-old father of two: "I noticed that my face is aging so quickly/ Cuz I've seen more than your average man in his 50's." True, he does go on to use a four-letter word - to accentuate his evocation of metal ripping through skin and bones. The Traditional Values Coalition would no doubt lobby to shut down the endowment were it to disseminate such filth.

Another of the movie's soldiers, Robert Beatty, a 33-year-old Army lifer with three children back home, wonders whether Americans who "don't have any direct family members in the military" regard the war as anything other than "just entertainment" and guesses that they lost interest once "major combat" had given way to the far deadlier minor combat that followed. A Gallup poll last year showed that most Americans might fall into that group, since two-thirds of those surveyed had no relative, friend or co-worker serving in Iraq. Does that vast unconnected majority understand what's going on there? Sergeant Beatty gives his answer in one of the film's most poignant passages: "If you watch this, you're going to go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I say. You'll forget me by the end. ..."

The words land so hard because we are already forgetting, or at least turning our backs. In Washington the gears are shifting to all Social Security all the time. A fast growing plurality of the country wants troops withdrawn from Iraq, but being so detached from the war they are unlikely to make a stink about it. The civilian leaders who conceived this adventure are clever at maintaining the false illusion that the end is just around the corner anyway.

They do this by moving the goal posts for "mission accomplished" as frequently as they have changed the rationale for us entering this war in the first place. In the walk-up to the Inauguration, even Iraq's Election Day was quietly downsized in importance so a sixth V-I Day further off in the future could be substituted. Dick Cheney told Don Imus on Inauguration morning that "we can bring our boys home" and that "our mission is complete" once the Iraqis "can defend themselves." What that means, and when exactly that might be is, shall we say, unclear. President Bush and Prime Minister Allawi told the press in unison last September that there were "nearly 100,000 fully trained and equipped" Iraqi security forces ready to carry out that self-defense. Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month that there are 120,000. Time magazine says this week that the actual figure of fully trained ground soldiers is 14,000, but hey: in patriotism as it's been redefined for this war, loving the troops means never having to say you're sorry - or even having to say the word Iraq in an Inaugural address.

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Thomas L. Friedman - Read My Ears

The New York Times
January 27, 2005

Read My Ears
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

Berlin

Having spent the last 10 days traveling to Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, I have one small suggestion for President Bush. I suggest that when he comes to Europe to mend fences next month he give only one speech. It should be at his first stop in Brussels and it should consist of basically three words: "Read my ears."

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: There is nothing that the Europeans want to hear from George Bush, there is nothing that they will listen to from George Bush that will change their minds about him or the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Bush is more widely and deeply disliked in Europe than any U.S. president in history. Some people here must have a good thing to say about him, but I haven't met them yet.

In such an environment, the only thing that Mr. Bush could do to change people's minds about him would be to travel across Europe and not say a single word - but just listen. If he did that, Mr. Bush would bowl the Europeans over. He would absolutely disarm and flummox people here - and improve his own image markedly. All it would take for him would be just a few words: "Read my ears. I have come to Europe to listen, not to speak. I will give my Europe speech when I come home - after I've heard what you have to say."

If Mr. Bush did that none of the European pundits would be able to pick apart his speeches here and mock the contradictions between his words and deeds. None of them would comment on his delivery and what he failed to mention. Instead, all the European commentators, politicians and demonstrators would start fighting with one another over what to say to the president. It might even force the Europeans to get out of their bad habit of just saying, "George Bush," and everybody laughing or sneering as if that ends the conversation, and Europe doesn't have to declare what it stands for.

Listening is also a sign of respect. It is a sign that you actually value what the other person might have to say. If you just listen to someone first, it is amazing how much they will listen to you back. Most Europeans, though, are convinced that George Bush is deaf - that he cannot listen or hear. Just proving that he is not deaf, and therefore the Europeans don't have to shout, would do wonders for Mr. Bush's standing.

What would Mr. Bush hear? Some of it is classic Eurowhining, easily dismissible. But some of it is very heartfelt, even touching. I heard it while doing interviews at the Pony Club, a trendy bar/beauty parlor in East Berlin. And more and more I think it explains why many Europeans dislike Mr. Bush so intensely. It's this: Europeans love to make fun of naïve American optimism, but deep down, they envy it and they want America to be that open, foreigner-embracing, carefree, goofily enthusiastic place that cynical old Europe can never be. Many young Europeans blame Mr. Bush for making America, since 9/11, into a strange new land that exports fear more than hope, and has become dark and brooding - a place whose greeting to visitors has gone from "Give me your tired, your poor" to "Give me your fingerprints." They look at Mr. Bush as someone who stole something precious from them.

Tim Kreutzfeldt, the bar owner, said to me: "Bush took away our America. I mean we love America. We are very sad about America. We believe in America and American values, but not in Bush. And it makes us angry that he distorted our image of the country which is so important to us. It is not what America stands for - and this makes us angry and it should make every American angry, because America lost so much in its reputation worldwide." The Bush team, he added, is giving everyone in the world the impression that "somebody is coming to kill you."

Stefan Elfenbein, a food critic nursing a beer at our table, added: "I know many people who don't want to travel to America anymore. ... People are afraid to be hassled at the border. ... We all discuss it, when somebody goes to America [we now ask:] 'Are you sure?' We had hope that Kerry would win and would make a statement, 'America is back to what it was four years ago.' We hoped that he would be the symbol, the figure who would say, '[America] is the country that welcomes everybody again.' [But] now we have to wait four more years, hopefully for somebody to give us back the country we knew and liked."

Yes, yes, there are legitimate counters to all these points. But before anyone here will listen to Mr. Bush make those counterpoints, he will have to really listen to them first.

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Matthew Paris - America's MIght Is Draining Away

January 22, 2005

Ignore the vanity of the Bushites, America's might is draining away
Matthew Parris

WHAT TIME is it for America? If the Boston Tea Party was first light and the Gettysburg Address dawn, where between the sunrise and sunset of empire is the United States now? To judge from his inauguration speech on Thursday, President Bush thinks it is about time for morning coffee: much to be proud of but big tasks — maybe the proudest of all — still ahead. To end tyranny on Earth is no small ambition.

Gerard Baker, the US editor of The Times, (“Don’t believe the doubters: America’s decline and fall is a long way off yet”) strikes a slightly more sanguine note. “A presidential inauguration is a chance for America to remind the world who is boss,” he smiles, “to demonstrate that the United States is the inheritor not only of Greece’s glory, but of Rome’s reach” — but Gerard would not himself go so far: he shares American anxieties about the rise of the Asian superpowers. He is confident, though, there are tremendous reserves of energy and potential still bubbling beneath the surface. “I would not bet on America’s eclipse just yet,” he concludes. For his America, I guess, it is around lunch. An afternoon’s work is still ahead.

I think it’s about half past four. For America-2005-Iraq, think of Britain-1899-Boer War. Ever-heavier burdens are being loaded upon a nation whose economic legs are growing shaky, whose hegemony is being taunted and whose sense of world mission may be faltering. “Overcommitted?” is the whisper.

Not that you would hear it in the din of drums and trumpets. More display is made in the spending of an inheritance than in its quiet accumulation, and the perfumed blossoms of July and August are heaviest after the nights have already begun to draw in. Like economic booms or summer solstices, empires have a habit of appearing at their most florid some time after their zenith has passed. Of the rise and fall of nations, history tends to find that the era of exuberance occurs when the underlying reasons for it are beginning to weaken. There is a time lag between success and swagger.

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his autobiography. It was at Miami airport, on August 17, 2004, as I stood musing for two hours in the aliens queue for fingerprints, while contradictory instructions were aimed at confused passengers by incompetent officials (and two security men started body-searching each other) that the idea that for America the rot was setting in first started to my mind.

In more ways than were betrayed by the battle between Lycra and human flesh being waged across the massive bums of the women I saw, America 2005 is overstretched. The neoconservative Right dreams about the prospect of a big new US military intervention in Iran, or perhaps Syria, but who stops to ask whether Washington has the troops for such an adventure? The aim would have to be regime change, and that needs ground forces. Simply “taking out” Iranian nuclear installations from the air would enrage and reinforce Iran’s Islamist reactionaries, and scupper whatever pro-Western reformist movement there may be.

The invasion would have to take place at the same time as maintaining the occupation of Iraq. This shows no signs of reducing its call on American forces, materiel or money. The Pentagon’s efforts may even have to be stepped up after the Iraq election: this newspaper among many has called for unstinting and open-ended US commitment to Iraqi security. Whether or not you believed Tony Blair when he claimed that American Forces were in urgent need of help from our Black Watch Regiment before Christmas, you can see that as deaths mount and anarchy continues in Iraq, no US president can be thinking in terms of deploying troops away from that country for operations elsewhere.

In 1995, 13.7 per cent of American troops were deployed abroad. Today it is some 27 per cent. America has more than 350,000 troops abroad. They are in (among other places) Ascension Island, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Egypt, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kosovo and South Korea. In at least a handful of these places it is fair to say that the country in question would collapse without them. I am no military analyst, but it seems reasonable to observe that in pursuit of US foreign and military policy, US defence forces are being pushed fairly hard. It is fanciful for the Left to fear, or the Right to hope, that at the flick of a switch President Bush can create large new arenas of American military engagement.

And, worryingly from the longer-term point of view, many of the more significant commitments among that list look like stalemates from the military point of view. No realistic president should see reason to hope that “mission accomplished” can soon be declared in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq. America (and often Britain) is bogged down in such places.

At the same time, I sense, America’s need for brute force as a substitute for moral suasion may be increasing. Mr Bush said “freedom” 27 times in his speech. John F. Kennedy could be more sparing with the word because the idea behind it shone so brightly for America then, and for the world. Across Africa in the past century, US foreign policy goals, which included the peaceful dissolution of the British Empire, were advanced without the firing of a shot — or the expenditure of more than the few dollars needed to fund American propaganda. Arguments are cheap, and America had the best arguments, the best visions, and the best tunes.

Deservedly or undeservedly, America has lost the tune. Just as happened for Britain during the Boer War, something has gone unaccountably off-key. We British won that South African war in the end by sheer, bloody force; and America will not be “defeated” in Iraq, or, I suppose, anywhere else. But as armaments are increasingly substituted for arguments, the strain grows. Eventually fatigue sets in.

There is a notion, as beloved of the European Left as of the yee-hah Right, that America’s pocket is bottomless, its Armed Forces countless, its weaponry infinite, and the only possible constraint upon its Government is the will of the people. Europeans speak as though for Washington cost is just not a consideration. This is not true of any empire or nation and has never been true of America; but it is less true today than at any time since the end of the Second World War.

For the truth is that the US is in relentless relative decline as an economic power in the world. The years after the Second World War (the years of the Marshall Plan), when the economies of most of its competitors had been wrecked while its own was growing strongly — were the noontide of American muscle. The Cold War, because its central narrative was that of a mortal threat from a Soviet giant of equal power, diminished the appearance of American strength, but the narrative was false. The collapse of the rival giant has exaggerated America’s apparent strength because it has so much more economic muscle than any single rival.

But for many decades America’s share of the world’s economic output has been in decline. Think of a see-saw. America at one end is now easily outweighed by any substantial grouping at the other, and most of those powers are on friendly terms with each other. America’s modesty in 1945 understated its muscle, just as Bushite vanity overstates it today. He has over-reached. His country is overstretched, losing economic momentum, losing world leadership, and losing the philosophical plot. America is running into the sand.