The United States and Britain have an Iraq crisis on their hands, but the US has something worse, a crisis of thought and assumption in the mainstream intellectual community over foreign policy.
The second crisis involves much more than the derailment of US policy in Iraq. It concerns what has been done and said to redefine America's place in global society and, by implication, in contemporary history, since 11 September - after which, as Americans said, nothing could ever be the same.
A 'new America' was said to have emerged, but it would be better to say an old one found new empowerment. It was recently described by former US ambassador to France Felix Rohatyn as 'more radical and more committed than ever to the need for unchallenged military dominance. It is more individualistic than Europe, more religious, conservative and patriotic ... [These factors] will influence everything America does from now on, both in its foreign and its domestic policies.'
This is undoubtedly true, but this 'new' America amazingly resembles the isolationist and xenophobic America between 1920 and 1941. What is new is that it has become the most heavily-armed nation on Earth and believes it is, and should remain, number one.
Like pre-1941 America, it includes a strong streak of populist anti-European sentiment. What's new is that many political intellectuals and political leaders are anti-European too, annoyed by Europe's pretension to offer a valid alternative to what America considers its manifest destiny, and preoccupied by the threat that the EU might become a serious international rival.
Despite everything some Americans say today about their future being tied to a dynamic new Asia, Europe remains the society against which the US measures itself. Americans know Europe as the society against which the US rebelled and, in the American mind, superseded.
A comparison with Britain reassures it; one with continental Europe upsets it. (It was the opposite in pre-1941 America; popular sentiment then was probably more anti-British than anti-continental.) Tony Blair has played the reassurance role with intuition and success, although the benefits to Britain remain in doubt.
The persistent note of denigration and condescension in talk about Europe (most recently, as a waning 'Venus' to an American 'Mars'), has to be understood as expression of an anxiety two centuries old and too deep to be acknowledged.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans produced several theories about their new position as sole superpower. The most popular one said that history had come to an end in the American political and economic system, all other possibilities exhausted or discredited. The US was history's culmination, the system the rest of the world had to adopt. The rest was detail.
This was an American Marxism, a dialectical interpretation of history as having been a march from the Neolithic cave to US military and moral superpower - and inevitable hegemony.
The 'realistic' version of this progressive dialectic, the one favored by Republicans, said that the US should use power as well as persuasion to hustle the others along for their own good. This was held essential in the case of those who found the idea of an Americanized destiny less alluring than it seems to Americans. The Iraqis currently benefit from such attention.
In 2001, the main reason the New York and Washington attacks produced so traumatic an effect in the US was that they defied the notion of America as the morally righteous fulfillment of history. Americans were abruptly made to see themselves as victims of what they interpreted as the hate and envy of people who obstinately refused to acknowledge (as George Bush angrily complained) 'how good we are'.
Americans were under attack by enemies who not only were multiple and elusive, malevolent and inventive, but who asserted their own outrageous claim to moral superiority over Americans, as well as a divine mandate of their own. The war on terror, with its adjunct war in Iraq, was meant to reconfirm this pre-eminence. Both, of course, have done the opposite. They have demonstrated the inability of badly overextended military power even to impose stability on the two countries in the developing world which the US has invaded.
The prospect of stabilizing and reforming what Washington now calls the 'Greater Middle East' seems slight, to put it politely. Terror has multiplied, rather than been disarmed. Now an American moral disaster has been revealed, composed of torture, secret prisons and international illegality. No one in Washington anticipated this. Certainly not the neo-conservatives, the most aggressive promoters of a 'righteous' imperialism, who drove the march to war in Iraq. They have dropped from sight.
The mainstream commentators and foreign policy experts never imagined defeat in Iraq. The latest American election-year books on foreign policy are entirely concerned with managing the challenges of success and hegemony.
Nearly all express a calm confidence that America has entered a new stage in its relations with the rest of the world, produced by the singularity of American power and the superiority of its conceptions of how the world should be ordered (not to speak of the mandate confided to America, and particularly to the present administration, by the English-speaking deity).
A year ago, when these books were drafted, few in the policy community and the corps of commentators, and no one in the Bush government, expressed any doubt that American military power was invincible; that it rested on moral foundations that are beyond serious reproach; that pacification, control and reform of Iraq and the Greater Middle East by the US and its allies was both feasible and desirable; and that 'the war on terror' was finite, intellectually and morally coherent - and winnable. War in Iraq was even expected to turn a profit since, as Paul Wolfowitz noted, the country was 'floating on oil'.
Most warned about where the world would find itself if America failed to lead all the rest. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, argued that the US has a right to 'more security than other countries', since without America's worldwide military deployment, there would be chaos in the Middle East, war in Asia, 'pell-mell' rearmament in Europe, a rush by Europeans to make 'special arrangements' with Russia, and rekindled 'fears of German power and historically rooted national animosities'.
Now the assumed decadence of Venus Europe, and its inevitable submission to the American Mars, has lost plausibility. The confident notion that a 'new' Atlanticist Europe would replace 'old' Europe disappeared with Spain's unapologetic withdrawal from Iraq and Polish intimations that its commitment was not unlimited. The faithful Blair suffers grave domestic consequences from having plunged down a blind alley in Washington.
The war on terror was founded on an edifice of illusions that virtually no one in the US policy community questioned. That has collapsed. Since they really were illusions about the US itself, the collapse has internal implications.
The country suffered a disruptive and doubt-filled domestic aftermath of the defeat in Vietnam for more than a decade. The war in Iraq was supposed to give the US the triumph it was denied in Vietnam. Instead, it has doubled the defeat. The consequences of this, abroad as well as at home, are unforeseeable.
William Pfaff's 'Fear, Anger and Failure: A Chronicle of the Bush Administration's War on Terror from September 11, 2001, to Defeat in Baghdad', has just been published in New York (Algora).
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004