This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power, examining the forces shaping the country's standing. Read more here.
I n October 2001, a few weeks after the attacks of September 11th, Abdul Haq, probably the most revered figure in the Afghan anti-Taliban resistance, was interviewed by Anatol Lieven, a leading specialist on the region. Abdul Haq bitterly condemned the invasion, which he recognised would kill many Afghans and undermine the efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within. He said that “the US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don’t care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose.”
It turns out that was not far from the doctrine of Donald Rumsfeld, America’s then defence secretary, when the Taliban offered surrender in 2001, a stance now being acknowledged 20 years too late. If there were reason to apprehend Osama bin Laden (which was not obvious—he was just a suspect then) the right procedure would have been a police operation, probably with Taliban co-operation: they wanted to get rid of him. But America had to show its muscle—as it has been doing in recent weeks by sending an armada into the South China Sea. It goes on and on: there is little new in imperial history.
Assessing the future of American power is a highly uncertain undertaking. The question might turn out to be moot. There is no need to tarry on the fact that the world is hurtling towards disaster. If the denialist Republican Party returns to power, the chances of pursuing responsible policies on environmental destruction will be sharply reduced. But assuming the best, we can at least identify the main factors on which American power is based, such as the state of the global order, the trajectory of America’s power and the justifications that have been offered to defend America’s actions.