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COLUMN RIGHT : Decline Should Be So Sweet : Prophets of doom said we held an inflated image of our power. Doesn’t Saddam Hussein wish we had heeded that warning?

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The big losers in the Gulf War--after Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan--will be those intellectuals and pundits who have made their mark proclaiming the decline of America. The Reagan defense buildup was spending America dry, they said. Rather than strengthening us, this expenditure was eroding the economic basis of our power, leaving America an empty shell. Perhaps this is what Saddam Hussein was reading when he decided to ignore President Bush’s deadlines.

The prophets of decline argued that Americans held an inflated image of our country’s power as a result of the anomalous situation of American supremacy at the end of World War II. Unless we reconciled ourselves to being just one nation among many, we would be cruising for a fall. Even our commitment to the defense of NATO constituted “imperial overstretch,” in the words of best-selling historian Paul Kennedy, all the more so any thought of exerting power in faraway places like the Persian Gulf. Doesn’t Hussein wish we had heeded that warning?

Not only were defense expenditures bleeding America, but we were spending money on all the wrong things, some of the same critics said. The Pentagon brass and defense contractors were foisting on our forces gold-plated high-technology weapons that would be of dubious utility on any real-life battlefield--weapons like Stealth bombers, laser-guided bombs, sea-launched cruise missiles and Patriot interceptors. All the devastating exposes of Pentagon folly must come as cold comfort today to Iraq’s vaunted Republican Guard, which was until this week the model of a lean, mean, low-tech fighting machine.

While the prophets of decline and Pentagon critics were mostly liberals, many conservatives underestimated America, too. French author Jean Francois Revel warned that “the democracies (are) in a state of intellectual impotence and political indolence that disposes them to defeat and makes a communist victory probable, if not inevitable.” The Soviet edge in nuclear throw-weight dramatically punctuated his point. But all of his ICBMs were of little avail to Mikhail S. Gorbachev when President Bush brushed aside his latest diplomatic intervention as if Gorbachev were secretary general of the toothless United Nations rather than general secretary of the once-fearsome Soviet Communist Party.

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In truth, America did experience a crisis of confidence in the wake of Vietnam. That harrowing defeat left us doubting our own righteousness, unsure of what our role in the world should be and insecure in our ability to perform whatever role we would choose. But whatever remains of that painful legacy is being buried today in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula.

Almost everything that went wrong in Vietnam seems to be going right in Kuwait. Our executive has provided clear leadership. The American people are united in support of the justice and necessity of our cause. Our commanders devised a sound strategy, and our men and women in arms executed it, by all accounts, to near perfection.

The outcome will leave America stronger than before. After our forces have so quickly dispatched what was the fourth-largest military force on Earth, who will want to test our mettle next? In this first chapter of post-Cold War history, America has decided that it wants to be a leader rather than repair to isolation, and it has shown that in place of bipolarity we now live in a world of one superpower.

Military prowess is but one part of America’s strength. The coalition of nations assembled to assist or support our effort in the Gulf is a mark of the respect and trust America enjoys. Whatever envy or resentment others may feel of our power, all know that we are not out to subjugate any nation or build an empire.

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Our triumph in the Gulf follows an even greater triumph in the battle of ideas. For generations, global politics revolved around an ideological struggle between communism, embodied in the Soviet Union, and democracy, embodied in the United States. In these last few years, communism has collapsed, while democracy has spread farther than ever.

In addition, American culture, for better or worse, now girdles the globe. There are few places left where you cannot sit and read USA Today over your Coke and Big Mac, if you haven’t already caught the news on CNN, which leads Ben Wattenberg to conclude in his book, “The First Universal Nation,” that America may now be “the most influential nation in history.”

Decline should ever be so sweet.


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