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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Superpower Dithers, and Bosnia Dies

Superpowers used to get respect. When they spoke, lesser nations listened. They grumbled, maybe, and dragged their feet and complained, but they listened. Now the cliche of international discourse is that we have a world with but one superpower, while the United States is getting less and less respect by the day.


North Korea tries to develop a nuclear bomb and the White House grumbles but does nothing. Iraq sends an assassination team into Kuwait to blow up former President George Bush, and his successor says he's studying the matter. The Serbs toy with the world community while they gobble up Bosnia, and suddenly the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevich is treated as a statesman in good standing, a part of the Balkan solution rather than the embodiment of the Balkan problem.


If Ronald Reagan were in the White House and Margaret Thatcher were in Downing Street, parts of North Korea, Baghdad and downtown Belgrade would be smoking craters by now. This is not to say that diplomacy by air strike is a good idea. But after the Reagan-Thatcher treatment in Libya and Grenada and the Falklands war and Kuwait, the world has grown accustomed to the decisive deployment of power.


This well-armed arrogance bred international respect. It made the rest of the world walk a little more cautiously. and as Kim Il-sung and Saddam Hussein and Milosevich see how much they can get away with, the baby-boomer in the White House is losing that global reflex of respect bequeathed to him by Reagan and Bush.


Americans may not pay much attention to world affairs, but they know that something is going wrong, and they do not feel good about it. The latest opinion poll of what we now call the gloom index found 70 percent reckoning the United States was "on the wrong track".


The glum mood goes far deeper than the hiccups in Clinton's legislative program in Congress, or the growing evidence that his health reform will demand a new tax burden of $60 billion or more. It goes deeper than the stubborn refusal of the economy to lift off, or to create new jobs, or unleash consumer spending.


The tragedy of Bosnia, and Clinton's agonized ditherings, have hurt not only the White House, but American self-confidence. For most Americans, the legacy of the Cold War and the Gulf conflict was of American leadership and NATO solidarity, of American power no longer sapped by the Vietnam syndrome, and justified by some simple principles: democracy, the rights of small nations and the need to outlaw aggressors.


It is a simplistic view of recent history, but not a dishonorable one. and all of that legacy and all of those principles are being dribbled miserably away as Bosnia dies.