Today Americans celebrate, as they have done every year for the last 233 years, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, asserting their country's freedom from rule by Great Britain. The celebrations are traditionally accompanied by spectacular fireworks, backyard barbecues and, of course, baseball games. I say 'of course' because as the cultural historian Jacques Barzun put it: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."

Among those revellers there will be thoughtful, politically engaged individuals, who will be pondering whether the new administration in the White House will rescue their country from losing its position as the only big power (pardon me, mega power), in the world today, and whether the US can meet the test that, in history, has challenged the longevity of every empire.

The eight years under former US president George W. Bush were a disaster for America. Fewer and fewer people trusted it, even among its putative friends in Europe, and more and more questioned its foreign policy.

For Arabs, it is not difficult to trace the origins of anti-Americanism. But what is ironic here is that, at the outset, Arabs had no reason to distrust the US as they had distrusted, say, Britain and France, both of which colonised them in the Middle East and North Africa.

In contrast, these Arabs had had no beef with the US, for their relationship with it began auspiciously: King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia meets with US president Franklin Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy on February 14, 1945, in the Great Bitter Lake. Clearly the issue of Palestine is paramount to the king and he tells his guest that if the suffering of the Jews had been caused by the Germans, then a Jewish state must be built on German land, not in Palestine,

The American president, as all official accounts attest, tells the Saudi royal that he "would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs, and would make no move hostile to the Arab people [in Palestine]".

Was that a pledge made on behalf of the American government or one to be kept only while Roosevelt remained in power? It is the former, King Abdul Aziz is assured, and the encounter ends.

Seemingly end of story.

But it wasn't. Three years later, the then US president Harry Truman did not consider himself bound by whatever pledges his predecessor had made.

The US got itself in trouble elsewhere as well not only because its soft power, or if you wish, its public diplomacy, had eroded considerably, but because its hard power additionally appeared to be on the wane in places as far apart as Vietnam and Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

All these setbacks should have been the proverbial 'canary in the mine', warning Americans of the deadly consequences of over-reach, or as Paul Kennedy, in his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, has called "imperial over-stretch". But the US paid no heed to the self-evident truths of a changed world order. It set for itself a vast array of commitments (a 'war on terror', not just a war on Al Qaida, for example) that were larger and more complicated than its ability to meet them all at once.

How big powers decline does not lend itself to easy summary. But if one reads not just the work of Kennedy, but other - as they are known - 'declinist historians', such as Walter Mead's Mortal Splendor and Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy, and Corruption and the Decline of Rome, by Ramsay MacMullen, one would glean what fate awaited American power had that power continued to be so irresponsibly and arrogantly exercised.

These declinists play the role of Copernicus, as it were, telling fellow Americans that the US is not really at the centre of the universe.

Enter US President Barack Obama, the leader who, so far at least, appears to be reaching out to other nations rather than dictating to them. That is why when he addressed the Muslim world from Cairo on June 4, he was given a standing ovation instead of being pelted by a pair of shoes. The overwhelming majority of Muslims believes that this new president, unlike his predecessors, will do more than just pay lip service to American ideals.

Yes, Barzun is right - baseball is America. One of baseball's rules is the one known as 'three strikes and you're out'. Batters cannot come back to the plate and take pitch after pitch if they miss out. Their fate is to spend the rest of their half inning in the dugout.

And that's where Bush and his team of self-destructive neocons are today.

There's a new ball game on in America. Or is there? We'll see in coming months. Stay tuned.

Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.

Your comments

To understand history is to understand the historian. Interesting, how different "history" can be based on who is writing.
Sarka Bohemina
Prague,Czech Republic
Posted: July 04, 2009, 00:39