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There's been a lot of talk about the role of the US role in Libya, unsurprisingly, but almost a shock to me has been to see some discussion of the longue duree in the press, if only at its margins.

Booman is my go-to political blogger, and I'll trace his references backward.  To begin:

I think Peter Beinart is probably onto something when he says that Obama is leading us into a  post-America world.  Whether you want to argue that this is because our  country is so financially strapped, or because we've lost our appetite  for costly military intervention, or because the president is secretly  working to undermine American hegemony, there are a lot of people who  are profoundly uncomfortable about seeing America act on the world stage  in anything less than a clearly-defined leadership role.

Then, Beinart's piece:

Some commentators love the Libya war; others hate it. But most agree that it’s profoundly unnatural that we were pushed into it by… France. Welcome to the post-American world. In the age we’re entering, most of the time, the choice will no longer be between humanitarian interventions controlled by the United States and humanitarian interventions where other nations take the lead. The choice will be between humanitarian interventions where other nations take the lead and no humanitarian interventions at all.

For a journalist, Beinart does well in the article.  For a journalist not because there's a problem with journalism but because journalists are trained to report the short term and do so well.  Beinart shows himself a broad thinker but is hemmed in by the formal limits of the newspaper article.  He needs to write a paper on it as my impression is that he'd write an excellent one.  I'd point out that the bit about France is idiotic.  France is a major imperialist power and the United States knows it.  France is a partner in crime, and its refusal to sign off in 2003 in the Security Council was that of a partner, not an adversary.  Beinhart should know this and avoid a cheap shot that, out of alignment with fact, is bound to both miss and mislead.

I will confess that I had bet that Obama would not order a military intervention.  Immanuel Wallerstein did, too: more on him later.  I am well aware that Obama is no dove, as he stresses this point at every opportunity.  It seems to me, and a ton of other people, that he has democratic instincts coupled with pragmatism on Alinsky's model.  My impression as I've pointed out in a couple comment threads is that Obama's decision was not a matter of taking sides in internal White House politics, siding with H. Clinton against Gates, but rather I imagine the sense that intervention was going to happen: witness that jackass Sarkozy.  Properly put, jackass is not an analytically valid category, but Sarkozy has as long as I've been aware of him evinced some unseen power to repel analytical validity.  The secret to his success has, here, been unveiled: notify Le Monde.  Obama will not allow a party to take place without at minimum being on the guest list plus one.  He accepts the functional existence of national interest and will not oppose it, and as it is in the US national interest, or at least that of the state, to have more rather than less influence in the world, the US must participate.  I don't think that myself, I hasten to say.  Obama weighed pros and cons differently than I did, obviously.

At some point I'll write a piece, possibly degenerating into a rant, about all this talk about "humanitarian military intervention."  The short story is that the second adjective trumps the first, and trumps it always.  Our point now is the relatively serious public discussion of American decline, or more generally and simultaneously precisely imperial decline.  It's good that, 1973 having arrived almost forty years ago, some people are starting to realize that at some point this country is going to have to put down its bottle or its drinking will kill it.

In one of Thich Nhat Hanh's books, can't remember which, he made the point that a the question at any moment is "how do I know?"  Of course he's not the first person to say this, but it bears examination nonetheless.  Marx, too, showed his Buddha nature: "merciless criticism of everything existing."

At hand, we need to examine decline.  The formal means of public discourse, the short article or television report, mitigates against such an examination, and therefore the thing--American decline--the existence or non-existence of which and nature of that we would need to demonstrate by argument becomes an assumption from which the argument proceeds.  Not a sound process.

So, decline: how do we know?  One knows by measurement and there are ways we can measure these things.  Annual GDP growth is a variable of choice in this discussion.  Here we go:


That's a decline all right, quantified at -2.6%.  Viz., a well-sourced Wikipedia article:

OECD members enjoyed real GDP growth rate averaging over 4% each year in the  1950s and very near 5% a year in the 1960s, compared with 3% in the  1970s and 2% in the 1980s.[5]

Bear in mind that the article does not refer only to the US but to the world economy generally, in which the US acted as hegemon.  The point hopefully is clear enough and I'll call blogger's privilege to not keep digging for data on the assumption that we all know it's there.

We can stop here, and then proceed forward, if we choose, or we can follow Thay's instruction, and now say: "GDP shows us if a country is going up or down.  How do we know?"  You can see where I'm going with this but I'll go there nonetheless.  It doesn't cost any more to write, publish, or read this if I do or if I don't.

The first choice is the most common.  We accept GDP, or any other measures, as having some inherent validity in and of themselves.  I'm not at all suggesting that we abandon measurement.  On the contrary, we need it and we need to increase the role of measurement in our discourse and diminish the role of ideology.  From a left perspective, the more we put facts on the table the more our side takes the day.  What we need to do, however, is be clear about what measurement is.  Dig:

uncertaintyThat's Heisenberg.  We refer to him only for general guidance: the way we measure things conditions the measurement itself.  GDP is a particularly problematic--not invalid, but problematic--measurement, and people with more expertise in the subject than me have ably elaborated on this.  The basic problem for our discussion is that GDP is not terribly meaningful for anything I care about unless it is cross-referenced with distribution of income.  In a nutshell, high growth can be accompanied by increasing inequality.  We can see "growth!" when in fact life is becoming financially harder for some or most people if the increase in the top quintile, to grab an example, is sufficiently large to compensate and then some for decline in the others.  Americans: look around you and remember our lives since 1973.  I have no need to prove this point since you are living it.

So, decline.  The point that does not get mentioned on TV is that GDP could halve in the United States while quality of life, measured by other means, could double.  Look at Bhutan's GNH, for example:

The Bhutanese grounding in Buddhist ideals suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. At this level of generality, the concept of GNH is transcultural—a nation need not be Buddhist in order to value sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation, and good governance. Through collaboration with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars with greater specificity into eight general contributors to happiness- physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. Although the GNH framework reflects its Buddhist origins, it is solidly based upon the empirical research literature of happiness, positive psychology and wellbeing

One would then object that the United States is no Bhutan, or vice versa depending on your politics.  Sometimes the boss drinks a little harder than the lemmings of the office, because he bears upon him the weight of the world, while they can be carefree.  And he's getting older.  He tires more easily than he used to, and doesn't snap back the next morning after a bender last night.  Indeed, his hangover often lasts until dinner.  This is us in America, in 2011.  So, what happens when the boss finally has too much of the shakes and calls it a day?  Clement Attlee can tell us.

Let everyone know, the greedy on the right and unimaginative on the slightly left, that it was only when Great Britain explicitly renounced empire and embraced decolonization in 1945--because that imperialist bastard Winston Churchill won the war but, deservedly, lost the election, doomed to drift like a well-spoken John McCain to any midwestern University that would invite him to make a speech--that the riches of Brit Rail and National Health shower upon the actual people of Britain.

Great Britain remains a rich country.  Great Britain continues to suck wealth out of the Global South like, not so much a leech but a vampire, not alive as once but definitely not dead nor dying.  Great Britain is by no means making the world a better place.  The point is that once Great Britain acknowledged it could not remain the world's hegemon

1.  We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

it could actually use its wealth as a society for its society.  Imperial decline is something to be embraced, because it makes like better for people, even measured materially.  They don't report this on Fox News, nor CNN, nor the Grey Lady, nor any of the capitalist media in this country.  They don't want people to know.  But, like Prince before me, I'm here to tell you: there's something else.  We embrace decline, because it is on balance a good thing if we play our cards right and invest in ourselves, socially.

The second Bush was the first fully Post-American President.  He's the one who played his decline cards wrong.  It's difficult to know what Bush himself did or did not think, at any given moment, but it's clear Cheney, showing if not telling the thought of the truly evil who fear in death the inevitability of the Christian Hell as payment for their sins, so they do everything to stave it off.  The cryogenically preserved and, in his own way equally evil Disney is worth noting.

frozenWe grant that Disney wasn't actually frozen, but he was an undeniably awful man, like Cheney is.  Disney would have probably, as did Cheney, sign on to this in 1997:

We are in danger of squandering the opportunity and failing the challenge. We are living off the capital -- both the military investments and the foreign policy achievements -- built up by past administrations. Cuts in foreign affairs and defense spending, inattention to the tools of statecraft, and inconstant leadership are making it increasingly difficult to sustain American influence around the world. And the promise of short-term commercial benefits threatens to override strategic considerations. As a consequence, we are jeopardizing the nation's ability to meet present threats and to deal with potentially greater challenges that lie ahead.

That as a statement of principles, such as they were, presumes a decline already under way.  PNAC's goal was to reverse, so to speak, the flow of history, and keep using forever.  To do this, the United States needed to go all Keith Richards and get a transfusion: witness Iraq and its pretext, Afghanistan.  Again, I know Keith Richards didn't actually get a transfusion, but dammit if the US didn't give it a try.

I am absolutely convinced that the current President means it when he says "win the future," clearly the 2012 slogan, many have noted.  I'm equally convinced that he means it, but uses it tactically.  Surely nobody is going to actually press him on what he means by "win," like change didn't need to be defined in 2008.  It's clear to me that while Obama may idolize Lincoln, admire Reagan, and get compared unfavorably to FDR by left liberals, in his heart he hoped to be a Clement Attlee, the guy who brought the British Empire to a soft landing.  That metaphor I sense spontaneously is a gift that keeps on giving, because we know that the second President Bush had a very chequered career as a pilot, and indeed seemed compelled by his co-pilot to crash the thing.  Maybe in this sense Obama might have hoped to have been, as he entered the transition in 2008, Sully Sullenberger.  Indeed, my own thought is that the transition was the most important part of Obama's Presidency, his "oh s#$t" moment.  It's clear that the previous Administration knew but hid how in trying to reverse history's flow--a metaphor, to be sure--they actually sped up American imperial decline.  Obama found this out in mid-November 2008.

Immanuel Wallerstein is well-enough known, but not often-enough referenced outside of a certain strain of Monthly Review reading leftists, of which I am a part.  Arguments that capital cannot rebut it marginalizes, we know this.  We will reference Wallerstein here, after we reference the Buddha, critical theorist #1, as he exited this fleeting world as a flash of lightning in a summer cloud:


Conditioned things are perishable;

with vigilance strive to succeed.

Conditioned things: things that come into being given certain conditions.  Like us.  Perishable: the translation is what it is, but might but it might be better said (I don't know Pali but I do know English) that all things that come into conditioned being must by that fact go out of conditioned being as such.  This bears directly on imperialism.  Were one to accept the desirability of establishing empire--slaughtering people who don't deserve it, destroying all culture, even your own, and generally degrading our species and every other--to do it well one must approach its end in its beginning, as to live well requires that one do so with death in mind.

Now, to Wallerstein, from 2003.  In the thick of it, we might remember.

How come at the moment we are living through a particularly aggressive and egregious form of imperialism, which for the first time in over a hundred years has been ready to use the words “imperial,” and “imperialism”? Why should they do that? Now, the answer most people give in one word is U.S. strength. And the answer I will give in one word is U.S. weakness.

Of course he was right.  Neither was this weakness new.

The threefold fact of the rise of economic rivals, the world revolution of 1968 and its impact on mentalities across the world, and Vietnam’s defeat of the United States, all taken together, mark the beginning of the decline of the United States.

    How could the rulers of the United States handle the loss of hegemony? That has been the problem ever since. There were two dominant modes of handling this loss of hegemony. One is that pursued from Nixon through Clinton, including Ronald Reagan, including George Bush, senior. All these presidents of the United States handled it the same way, basically a variant of the velvet glove hiding the mailed fist.

Bush--these are my words, not Wallerstein's--was the first Post-American President, as those listed above, Nixon through Clinton, pursued a more or less rational policy to lengthen the period of decline which all understood as more or less inevitable, witnessing the warm relations with China that each had.  Then:

Enter the hawks. The hawks do not see themselves as the triumphant continuation of U.S. capitalism or U.S. power or anything else. They see themselves as a group of frustrated outsiders who for fifty years did not get their way even with Ronald Reagan, even with George Bush, senior, even with George Bush, Jr. before 9/11. They are still worried that George Bush, Jr. will chicken out on them. They think that the policy that went from Nixon to Clinton to the first year of George W. Bush, of trying to handle this situation, diplomatically, multilaterally—I call it the velvet glove—was an utter failure. They think it just accelerated the decline of the United States and they think that had to be changed radically by engaging in an egregious, overt, imperial action—war for the sake of war. They did not go to war on Iraq or Saddam Hussein because he was a dictator. They did not go to war on Iraq even for oil. I will not argue that point here, but they did not need the war on Iraq for oil. They needed it to show the United States could do it, and they needed that demonstration in order to intimidate two groups of people: (1) anybody in the third world who thinks that they should engage in nuclear proliferation; and (2) Europe. This was an attack on Europe, and that is why Europe responded the way it did.

Bearing in mind that this is 2003:

The hawks have not won the game. They have grabbed hold of the U.S. state machinery; 9/11 made that possible. And the hawks know it is now or never and they will continue to push, because if they don’t push forward, they will fall back. But they have no guarantee of success, and some of their biggest enemies are other capitalists who do not like the line with Europe and Japan because they basically do believe in the unity of capital; who don’t think that the way you handle these things is by smashing all opposition, but would prefer to co-opt it. They are extremely worried that this is Samson pulling down the house.

As we saw, Samson did indeed pull down the house.  Enter Obama, who it is very clear to me thought that the Attlee model of imperial decline was the best realistic possibility.  Dismantle empire, spend domestically.  Politics intervened, but even then the last Congress still passed, as sober observers--or rather, observers who actually observe rather than merely pontificate--more "progressive" legislation than any since Johnson.  Obama has gotten we might say 80% of what he wanted, and that in Alinsky's model--not necessarily mine--is a 100% success.

Having said that, and it's time to close, it's very clear that political considerations in the United States will make its decline less beneficial for its people than Great Britain's.  Less overt and covert racism in the electorate, combined with a Parliamentary system, would really help right now.

Crossposted at

Originally posted to palaverer on Sat Mar 26, 2011 at 04:41 PM PDT.

Also republished by Foreign Relations and Eyes on Egypt and the Region.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Another very thought provoking (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    piece. You lost me at the equations and Heisenberg, but I really enjoyed the essay. Really glad to see Wallerstein's remarks.

    Its *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

    by poco on Sat Mar 26, 2011 at 05:08:39 PM PDT

    •  Thanks, and (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, A Voice

      the thing with Heisenberg is just to point out that our means of measurement in anything condition what we measure.  No measurement is neutral.  Physics operates differently than politics, but in any event Heisenberg presented his example as a metaphor.  With GDP though it is critical to acknowledge that by using that measurement rather than another, certain policy choices will in this or that situation will be more likely to happen, and, much more importantly, GDP itself conditions the range of possible choices.  It renders certain things possible and others inevitable.  There is no discussion of this in our media and our politics is as a result very constrained.  Empire is inevitable, in some form.

  •  Republished to (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    poco, Deoliver47, koNko

    Eyes on Egypt and the Region Group.

  •  I like the video below on Libya (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BigAlinWashSt, Lepanto, A Voice

    When asked if Ghaddafi going to war on his own people is justification for war:

    "Which part of his own people are you talking about"

    •  Absolutely (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      This is generally on point.  There needs to be some discussion of what war actually is.  The other thing is that there's no real understanding of who the opposition are.  I think she totally overstates the point that this is a US action and the other states are fig leaves, with a typically american (god, I hope she's not canadian...) dig about france.

      OK, I looked her up, shes american.  this is depressing to hear such a narrowmindedly US centered view--even a critical one--from someone who's written for the monthly review.  There's a huge problem on the left where american leftists in essence think as if the rest of the world is strictly an appendage of the US, and that therefore all problems begin and end in washington.  Corporate power certainly doesn't see it that way, and it allows them much leeway.

      That said, she's 80% right which makes it 100% successful.

  •  I have long been of the opinion (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    poco, BigAlinWashSt

    that the US can see the future course of its empire by looking to the family tree. Mother Britannia sunk slowly but inevitably beneath the horizon. Her demise was somewhat prolonged by being able to cling to her daughters skirts. The daughter is likely to turn out to be childless when it comes to bailouts. It seems to me very conceivable that the present upheavals in the Arab world may hasten the general pace of global reshuffling.

  •  Wallerstein is like a Jehovah's Witness (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Just as a Jehovah's Witness will take a few random news items and claim that they are proof that Jesus is about to return, Wallerstein will take a few random statistics and news stories and use them to assert that now is the final crisis of capitalism and the revolution will happen any day now.

    •  He has never said that. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Voice, Richard Lyon, poco

      Wallerstein has never said anything like we are going to witness the final crisis of capitalism in our lifetimes.  Rather, he points to a hegemonic shift, away from the United States to most likely China.  This is how the modern world system, his term from the trilogy of the same name, operates.  core, semiperiphery, periphery.  the core power or powers shifts over time, players and settings are rearranged, but it's all capitalist.  A declining united states would no more end capitalism than a declining britain did, or netherlands before it.

      I'm sort of surprised you'd take a shot from the hip like that.

    •  Also (0+ / 0-)

      What's up with the crack about Witnesses?

    •  A few random thoughts (0+ / 0-)

      From a Johovah's Witness

      Cornell West - "Dear Mr. Man" Featuring Prince

      What's wrong with the world 2day?
      Things just got 2 get better
      Sho' ain't what the leaders say
      Maybe we should write a letter

      Said Dear Mr. Man, we don't understand
      Why poor people keep struggling but U don't lend a helping hand
      Matthew 5:5 say "The meek shall inherit the earth"
      We wanna b down that way
      but U been trippin since the day of your birth

      Who said that 2 kill is a sin
      Then started every single war that Ur people been in?
      Who said that water is a precious commodity
      Then dropped a big old black oil slick in the deep blue sea?

      Who told me, Mr. Man, that working round the clock
      would buy me a big house in the hood
      With cigarette ads on every block
      Who told me, Mr. Man, that Eye got a right 2 moan?
      How about this big ol' hole in the ozone?

      What's wrong with the world 2day
      Things just got 2 get better
      Dear Mr. Man, we don't understand
      Maybe we should write a letter

      Listen, ain't no sense in voting - same song with a different name
      Might not b in the back of the bus but it sure feel just the same
      Ain't nothing fair about welfare
      Ain't no assistance in AIDS
      We ain't that affirmative about your actions until the people get paid

      Ur thousand years r up
      Now U got 2 share the land
      Section 1 - the 14th amendment says "No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property,
      without due process of law"

      Mr. Man, we want 2 end this letter with 3 words
      We tired a-y'all

      What about my Daughter's future?

      by koNko on Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 07:02:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I teach Wallerstein to undergrads (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Richard Lyon, poco

    when we get to the part of the intro to cultural anthro course where we begin to explore world systems analysis.

    Thank you for this thought provoking diary.  Bookmarked, tipped and rec'ed.

    "If you're in a coalition and you're comfortable, you know it's not a broad enough coalition" Bernice Johnson Reagon

    by Denise Oliver Velez on Sun Mar 27, 2011 at 05:58:42 AM PDT

    •  Thanks kindly (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      and that sounds like a fun gig.  i am aware it is not always so, but surely a lot of students connect to his stuff, because it really helps explain things.

      my background is in history and the trilogy on the modern world system is to my thinking the best review of historical literature i know of.  he's an incredibly good reader of others' work.  i say this a) because it popped into my head and b) because there is a bit of a bias against wallerstein at least from some historians because he operates out of his field in that work.  On the other hand, a lot of historians agree with me that he is one of the examples of how one can work outside ones field if one does so well.

  •  Decline or Maturity? (0+ / 0-)

    Empires come and go and when they go it's usually because hubris causes them to over-reach until they collapse under their own weight, usually with the help of the earth moving under their foundation.

    Usually. Then there is the slow fade to lowered expectations and, if they don't fall too far too fast, the realization that there are limits. In other words, maturity.

    For example, the British Empire didn't come to a cataclsmic end, but rather, over a period of about 100 years, lost it's wealth and influance by design and accident in stages that cut it down to manageable size without, however sarificing it's culture, it's government  and place in the world - it is still an importiant nation, but works in a smaller space.

    I think this is what is happening in the US. If we need to hang a date on it, the point the Amerian Century started to unwind was when Gorbachov, realizing the USSR could no longer sustain it's position decided to losen his grip on that Empire, effectively breaking the bond that joined the USSR and US together as the defacto global hedgemons, making the US the only remaining "Superpower", effectively transfering the burden of leadership and all the blood and treasure that entails to the US.

    It was never going to last. "The New World Order" is disorder and what matters more now is how countries manage multipolar relationships.

    I think Obama understands this.That is why he got the Nobel Prize. From day one, his popularity around the world was due to the fact he talked the talk and the degree he has lost popularity at home and abroad is the degree to which his administration has difficulty walking the walk.

    He has signaled this in many ways but none more clearly than the last G20 meeting when he sent the clear message the US could no longer function as the economic ballast of the global economy and is sending it again by excercising some restraint in his approach to Libya, taking the lead role in the opening act and then stepping back (in concert with the UK and remainder of NATO states) to let France do it's thing .

    He will get kicked in the ass for doing so - what kind of Superpower takes a back seat to someone like Sarkozy anyway?

    Maybe a smart one. Americxans should welcome this. It is not a loss of face (probably feels like one to some people) but rather a bit of self control to avoid jumping into a potentially costly mess when you don't have to.

    France is not going to supplant the position of the US any day soon no matter how much flag waving Sakozy does. If he is recelected as a result he will be lucky and see a pay off from a risky gamble but that is far from a given.

    Within the next 20 - 30 years the Chinese economy is likely to surpass the US at which point Chinese will still have far less wealth and far more problems (such as a looming age bomb of epic proportions) than is likely to be the case in the US.

    What the US needs to do at this point is reinvent itself and take advantage of the opportunity it presents to realign it's economy to integrate better with the world as a top tier player that can be more nimble than what large developing countries are likely to be in the future.

    Pouring money down the drain to maintain the illusion of a supreme power is the quickest way to fail at that game. A better idea might be to map a course to be one of several leading nations occupying a bit less space with a bit less responsabiliity but greater domestic stability and national unity.

    But to do so means swollowing one's pride a little and sticking to one's knitting.

    What about my Daughter's future?

    by koNko on Mon Mar 28, 2011 at 04:56:09 AM PDT

    •  I love long comments (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      And also smart ones.  I agree that maturity might be a better term than decline, though I'm concerned with the meaning of decline so I used it.  You say:

      the degree he has lost popularity at home and abroad is the degree to which his administration has difficulty walking the walk.

      I might say that it's not about the difficulty he has had walking the walk but the success.  He's been enormously successful.  Unfortunately, ours is a country in which people are very wedded to their delusions, and someone like the President who is not fundamentally delusional is out of step with that.

      I agree that taking a back seat to France doesn't sit well with US bigotry, but dammit if the US is going to get involved in this (which I don't think it should, still) it's a hell of a lot better to not be out front.

      Honestly, I think that reportage aside, Gaddafi's days are numbered regardless.  It's just a matter of how soon and how.

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