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Original Article

Persistent primacy and the future of the American era
Robert J. Lieber
Department of Government, Georgetown University, Washington DC 20057-1034, USA. E-mail:

Abstract Arguments are widely expressed that America is in decline, both at
home and abroad. These admonitions extend not only to economic, diplomatic and geopolitical realms, but even to the cultural arena. The United States does face real and even serious problems, but there is an unmistakable echo of the past in current arguments. Antecedents of these views were evident in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and on occasion even in identical language. Indeed, declinist proclamations have appeared on and off not only throughout the 20th Century, but also during the 18th and 19th Centuries. Moreover, periodic crises in US history have included challenges more daunting than those of today. It can thus be instructive to compare the arguments and prescriptions of the new declinism with those of earlier eras. The evidence suggests a pattern of over-reaction, a historicism, and a lack of appreciation for the robustness, adaptability and staying power of the United States. International Politics (2009) 46, 119–139. doi:10.1057/ip.2008.44 Keywords: US foreign policy; primacy; American era; decline; staying power; adaptability

By virtue of its size, the breadth and depth of its power, and the indispensable role it plays in world affairs, the United States possesses a unique degree of primacy, that is, preponderance in comparison with other countries in those dimensions by which power is commonly measured, especially economic, military, technological and even cultural. With the end of the Cold War and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was widely depicted as the lone superpower. In recent years, however, many authors and strategists have been predicting the end of the American era. They argue that America’s very size and predominance, as well as its foreign policy conduct, the
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wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its economic, structural and military vulnerabilities, are triggering the emergence of an increasing number and variety of stubborn challenges to US power and influence. These voices have grown louder with the onset of a massive financial crisis, both American and global. For example, in the words of German Finance Minister, Peer Steinbruck, ‘The US will lose its status as the superpower of the ¨ world financial systemyWhen we look back 10 years from now, we will see 2008 as a fundamental rupture’ (Benoit, 2008). And Iran’s volatile President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to world leaders gathered at the United Nations, has prophesied that America’s empire is ‘reaching the end of the road’ (Solomon, 2008). Notwithstanding such views, counterbalancing and the decline of US primacy have yet to take place and it remains a matter of contention whether or when they will occur. Elsewhere, I have argued that the threat from militant Islamic terrorism, the weakness of international institutions in confronting the most urgent and deadly problems and the unique role of the United States have made a grand strategy of superpower preeminence a logical and necessary adaptation to the realities of the post-9/11 world (Lieber, 2005/2007).1 This leads, however, to the question of whether we may be witnessing a major erosion of America’s capacity to play this role. (The question of whether it should do so remains a separate matter and one that has been subject to vigorous debate elsewhere.) One source of change could come from shifts in the international distribution of power, so that other states, individually or in coalition, come to possess power comparable to or even exceeding that of the United States. In addition, there are the human and material costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which together may be undercutting America’s strength. At the same time, the United States faces current or potential threats from regional powers as well as radical Islamist terrorist groups, and more diffuse but no less real dangers from nuclear proliferation and failed states. Moreover, the rise of authoritarian capitalist powers, especially Russia and China, suggests the possible re-emergence of great power peer competitors (see Gat, 2007). Challenges to primacy can come from many different directions, not only from abroad. A significant, yet often under-emphasized dimension concerns the maintenance of a strong domestic foundation. Nearly a generation ago, Michael Howard called attention to the ‘forgotten dimensions of strategy’ (Howard, 1979). These included not only the capacity to deploy and support the largest and best-equipped forces but also the ability to maintain the social cohesion without which national power and strategy cannot be sustained. In this regard, there are long-term economic challenges in funding a robust National Security Strategy (NSS) and meeting the needs of an aging population while maintaining economic growth and financial stability,
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the majority of voters (59 vs 37 per cent) thought the United States should have stayed out. I begin by reviewing external challenges.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era especially in the context of domestic dissensus and political polarization that until recently was more pronounced than at any time since the Vietnam era. as did a mere 2 per cent of delegates to the Democratic presidential nominating convention (New York Times/CBS News Poll. This consists of three distinct but interrelated elements: first. however. 119–139 121 . the longer term peril that non-state actors may eventually acquire and use some form of chemical. and third. The International Context Threats Contrary to widely expressed hopes and expectations following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an August 2008 opinion poll. biological. public support and institutional capability. Next. I conclude that much of the debate about both the international and domestic dimensions of foreign policy has given inadequate weight to more fundamental questions while emphasizing those less likely to endure. the partisan division over Iraq is virtually unprecedented. whereas only 14 per cent of Democrats agreed. the reality of this threat has sometimes been obscured by the bitterness and intensity of political polarization. 2008). more likely than not to continue. involving costs. possible alternatives to the American role and the extent to which the international distribution of power may be shifting. I then examine past and present doctrine and policy and argue that both have often been mischaracterized in recent debates about strategy and foreign policy. 46. though there were disagreements between r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. radiological or nuclear weaponry (CBRN). As evidence. second. Without minimizing the very real difficulties in both the international and domestic environments. during the Vietnam era. the underpinnings of American primacy remain relatively robust and the country’s ability to maintain its international primacy is. However. a lethal and sustained threat to America’s security and vital interests has emerged. In addressing the question of whether primacy is sustainable. 2/3. including the threat environment. I address the problems of domestic capacity. 70 per cent of Republican voters answered that taking action was the right thing to do. radical Islamist jihadism as ideology and in its varied organizational forms. In contrast. asking whether the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq. and which most recently have been seriously exacerbated by a major financial crisis. the persistent danger of mass casualty terrorism. Within the American policy and strategic debate. on balance.

2/3. its affiliates. the 1993 truck bomb attack on the World Trade Center in New York only narrowly failed in its aim. European governments do appear to have become increasingly aware of the danger. For example. German police seized three Islamist terrorists planning massive bombings against targets in Germany (Gebauer and Musharbash. the scale of threat cannot be understood in such limited terms. half of them children. the Red Brigades in Italy. the IRA in Northern Ireland and the Basque separatist ETA in Spain. 119–139 . 52) has written that. the abortive Bojinka Plan. 2002. Robert L. and its ideology’ (The 9/11 Commission Report. there were failed bomb attacks in central London and at Glasgow airport. p. the head of Britain’s MI5 revealed in November 2006 that as many as 30 ‘mass casualty’ terrorist plots had been identified and that British security services and police were monitoring 200 groups or networks totaling more than 1600 persons ‘actively engaged in plotting or facilitating terrorist attacks’ (Manningham-Butler. In recognition of this threat. possibly collapsing it against its twin at a time of day when both buildings were fully occupied and wreaking a casualty toll substantially greater than that of 9/11. 2007). these were less wide and the divisions within each party were also quite pronounced. would have destroyed 10 – 12 wide body passenger aircraft over the Pacific (see House. 2006). it would have brought down the North Tower. It is also the judgment of prominent and largely non-partisan authorities on terrorism and proliferation that the use of CBRN may well occur within the next decade. and to imagine that the danger can be treated primarily as a criminal matter best dealt with by domestic security. Unfortunately. the bipartisan 9/11 Commission stated in its unanimous report that. but the peril had been developing during the course of the 1990s. Karber. 2002. policing and courts. 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were a watershed event and deserve comparison with Pearl Harbor in marking a turning point. and though partially obscured by sharp differences about the Iraq War and the conduct of the Bush administration. 2003).Lieber the parties. and in September of that year. Abroad. Sullivan and Whitlock. For America the 9/11. 2007. Had it succeeded. 122 r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. particularly in parts of Europe. Senate. Moreover. has asserted that acquisition of nuclear weapons is a sacred duty and added that al-Qaeda would be justified in killing four million Americans. there has been a tendency to view 9/11 and radical jihadism through the lenses of earlier and more familiar experiences with violent domestic groups such as Baader-Meinhof in Germany. Gallucci (2006. Even earlier. no less a figure than Osama bin Laden. in late June 2007. For example. who had been preaching war against the United States since at least 1996. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism – especially the al Qaeda network. 362). ‘[T]he catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. Subsequently. 46. 2004. For example. p. a 1995 plot.

119–139 123 . Murawiec. but they also tend to over-simply the explanation of contemporary conflicts. ‘More than 80 per cent expect a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 within a decadey’ (‘Terrorism Index. in empowerment of women. Another reason for concluding that the threat is deep-seated and long term has to do with the fundamental sources of radical Islamism. These reactions have been expressed at both individual and societal levels. 62).’ In addition. 2001). the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the affront caused by ‘occupation’ of Arab or Muslim lands (see Pape. These failures have. p. 2002). 46. and published in June 2005. see also Doran. Those who downplay the threat tend to argue that the most important causes stem from specific provocations by America. Such interpretations not only do not take into account the far deeper origins of radical Islam. in some cases. over the past four centuries. 2005a). The fundamental causes of radical jihadism and its manifestations of apocalyptic nihilism lie in the failure to cope successfully with the disruptions brought by modernity and globalization and in the humiliation experienced. there are the responses of 85 national security and non-proliferation experts to a survey conducted by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff for its then Chairman. r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. it is more likely than not that al Qaeda or one of its affiliates will detonate a nuclear weapon in a US city within the next five to ten years. the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report has described the contemporary Arab world as afflicted by profound deficits in freedom. Assaf Moghadam of the Olin Institute for Security Studies at Harvard has provided a compelling refutation of the idea that suicide terrorism is primarily motivated by a resistance to ‘occupation. 2005). 2008). Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. Similarly. 40 per cent for a radiological attack and 70 per cent for some kind of CBRN event (Senate. particularly the Iraq War. Ajami. 2006. in an implied reference to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and thus the end of the Muslim Caliphate which had extended back some 13 centuries to the time of the Prophet. These respondents were asked to predict the likelihood of a CBRN attack occurring anywhere in the world within the following 10 years and their average probability estimate was 29 per cent for a nuclear attack. Israel or the West. In contrast. For example. Osama bin Laden’s October 2001 video invoked 80 years of Muslim ‘humiliation’ and ‘degradation’ at the hands of the West (Al-Jazeera. 2002. 2/3. especially by parts of the Arab–Muslim world. been amplified by the experiences of individuals who have become detached from one world and yet have been unable to integrate into another (see Lewis.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era ‘[U]nless many changes are made. 2006. a survey of 100 foreign policy experts by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress found that.’ Instead he emphasizes the way in which it has evolved into a ‘globalization of martyrdom’ (Moghadam.’ 2007. In turn. and in knowledge and information. the American presence in the Middle East.

the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Moreover. may perceive itself to be in a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Casablanca. In assessing nuclear proliferation risks in the late Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Jakarta. Such views are altogether too complacent. Over the longer term. 2003. 2/3. the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. deadly Sunni–Shiite violence in Iraq. some have asserted that deterrence and containment. Suicide terrorism elsewhere has had little to do with ‘occupation’ by the West or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. which seemed to work during the Cold War. and that terrorist strikes against American targets abroad were carried out in 1990s when the Israel–Arab peace process seemed to be making real progress.2 In addition to the threat posed by radical Islamist ideology and terrorism. the destruction of the Shiite golden dome mosque in Samarra. Not only might the technology. The late Saddam Hussein had shown himself to be reckless and prone to reject outside information that differed from what he wished to hear (see Woods 124 r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. and in the process of developing a nuclear arsenal. and coupled with the spread of missile technology. but also of a deep-seated and fundamental rage against modernity and those identified with it. materials or weapons themselves be diverted into the hand of terrorist groups willing to pay almost any price to acquire them. on the other hand. will be sufficient to protect the national interests of the United States and those of close allies (see Mearsheimer and Walt. it also requires that one’s adversary is a value-maximizing rational actor and that he be perceived as such. Mumbai. the parties came to the nuclear brink. A robust nuclear balance is difficult to achieve. and numerous interrupted plots are among multiple indications not only of the wider threat posed by radical jihadism. bases and allies surely might be. 119–139 . even if the American territory may not be at immediate risk. the United States will be more exposed to this danger. mass casualty attacks on public transportation in London and trains in Madrid. its interests. the knowledge that whichever side suffered an initial nuclear attack would have the capacity to retaliate by inflicting unacceptable damage upon the attacker. the effort to blow up the Indian parliament. Moreover.Lieber It is noteworthy too that the 9/11 attacks took place before the US-led invasion of Iraq. but also the spread of these weapons carries with it the possibility of devastating regional wars. 2007). And careful decision-making control by rational actors in new or pending members of the nuclear club is by no means a foregone conclusion. Attacks in Bali. the proliferation of nuclear weapons is likely to become an increasingly dangerous source of instability and conflict. Shapiro. Amman. a country embroiled in an intense regional crisis may become the target of a disarming first strike or. The US–Soviet nuclear balance took two decades to become relatively stable and on at least one occasion. stable deterrence necessitates assured second strike capability. Importantly. in North Korea and in Iran. 46. Istanbul.

pp. the US factor remains the greatest guarantee that liberal democracy will not be thrown on the defensive and relegated to a vulnerable position on the periphery of the international system’ (Gat. 69). and global. air travel. investment. 2/3. This is especially true for smaller and medium-sized countries and for rules and practices involving trade. 2006a. International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA). shipping and sports. finance. but by no means do all societies accept the norms of liberal democracy.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era et al. He concludes. For example. the United States continues to be the key actor for the future of liberal democracy. fostered Holocaust denial and called for Israel to be wiped off the map. functional or regional bodies such as the World Health Organization. In his words. as well as for international tribunals to punish a selected number of gross human rights violators from conflicts in places such as Bosnia. especially by terrorist groups. For some. international law does operate in multiple realms. p. radical Islam is actually a lesser threat in that it fails to offer a viable alternative to modernity. Gat argues that the more dangerous challenge stems from the rise of China and Russia. ‘As it was during the twentieth century. Of course. though he does take seriously the potential use of CBRN. that whereas either country could eventually evolve in a more democratic direction. World Trade Organization and the European Union (EU) are praised for their roles above and beyond the nation state. And Iranian President Ahmadinejad has expressed beliefs that suggest an erratic grip on reality or that call into question his judgment. One more component of threat to the global liberal democratic order concerns what Azar Gat (2007. transparency and the rule of law. 119–139 125 . The UN specialized agencies are pointed to. 59–60) has termed the rise of authoritarian capitalist powers. intellectual property. Shared understandings and rules of the road are important. even shared norms and beliefs can sometimes be r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. he has invoked the return of the 12th or hidden Imam. both of which represent an alternative path to modernity. Rwanda and Liberia. embraced conspiracy theories about 9/11. However. and traditional national sovereignty has eroded under pressure from the forces of modernity and globalization. In his view. 2007. Alternatives Almost every deliberation about foreign policy sooner or later gives rise to calls for renewed or enhanced reliance on international institutions and multilateralism as preferred means for addressing common problems and threats. The emergence and expansion of international norms and regimes is seen as evidence of a growing degree of global governance. 46. b). Moreover. authorization by the United Nations Security Council has come to be regarded as the litmus test for the legitimacy of any foreign intervention.

as well as recent Security Council resolutions. where UN resolutions and peacekeepers proved unable to halt the carnage or to rein in Serbia. and whose Revolutionary Guard Corps have repeatedly intervened covertly in Lebanon and Iraq. which from 1991 to 2002 failed to comply with its obligations in sixteen successive UNSC resolutions passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. flouted both IAEA and UN resolutions as well as its obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Syria and Hezbollah. refusing to withdraw its troops and bases. Sudan. Consider a number of cases in point: K K K K K K K K Bosnia. which have repeatedly defied Security Council resolutions concerning Lebanese sovereignty and the disarming of militias. Iraq under Saddam Hussein. and which launched a manifestly disproportionate attack against Georgia after that small republic reacted r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. 2/3. which has – at least until very recently – systematically. Why. North Korea. which has used both overt and covert means to intimidate or coerce independent states of the former Soviet Union by such means as arming separatist groups. dangerous or deadly the peril. whose depredations in the Darfur region have caused as many as 400 000 deaths and the flight of some 2 million refugees. and where UN peacekeepers stood by impotently during the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. is a decision to act against threats to the peace more legitimate when it is validated by the representatives of authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing than when merely agreed to by the elected leaders of liberal democracies? In crisis situations the invocation of global governance. for example. and which from 1996 to 2002 used bribery and corruption to undermine the UN oil-for-food program and divert revenues for Saddam’s use. And the more urgent. from 1992 to 1995. and manipulating energy supplies. Russia. 46. whose concealed nuclear program has violated NPT and IAEA requirements for nearly 20 years. and which has managed (with Chinese help) to minimize effective international intervention by the UN Security Council. international norms or treaty obligations is as much or more likely to be a pretext for inaction than a spur to compliance. and carried out terrorist bombings as far afield as Argentina. The Rwanda genocide of 1994.Lieber flawed. secretly and sometimes openly. the less likely there is to be effective agreement by the international community. where the UN Security Council permanent members consciously averted their gaze and deliberately reduced the small UN troop presence. Iran. 119–139 126 .

but the American-led air war against Serbian forces in Kosovo and targets within Serbia itself ultimately did bring ethnic cleansing to a halt. however. At times. not only has balancing not occurred. on the eve of the American-led coalition intervention against Saddam Hussein. effective balancing against the United States has yet to occur. In addition.5 There are good r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. some two-thirds of the member governments of both the EU and NATO supported the Bush administration’s decision. but also principal European leaders have either maintained (as in the case of Britain) or reasserted (Germany and France) pragmatic Atlanticist policies. Serbia’s decision to halt its actions in Kosovo may have owed as much to President Milosevic’s fears that NATO might resort to the use of ground troops and that the Russians would not come to his aid. 2/3. Many.4 And for its part. 46. but most of the NATO contingents lacked the advanced military technology and force deployments to be able to cooperate effectively with the US Air Force.3 Despite arguments about ‘soft-balancing’. but they illustrate the limitations of the UN and mechanisms of global governance. with some participation by the British and to a limited extent others (French. 119–139 127 . The great majority of the air sorties were conducted by the Americans. and it is worth recalling that in the early months of 2003. and five of the largest EU member states (that is. President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder could not speak for all their EU partners. it has been possible to work with allies outside the UN framework in responding effectively to crises.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era rashly to a series of provocations orchestrated by Moscow in the separatist enclave of South Ossetia. Possible shifts in the international distribution of power Despite expectations that a period of unipolarity would trigger balancing behavior or that French–German–Russian opposition to the American-led intervention in Iraq would stimulate the formation of such a coalition. all except Spain) are currently governed by avowedly Atlanticist presidents or prime ministers. as it did to the effects of the bombing campaign. An instructive case was the 1999 agreement of NATO member states to intervene in Kosovo in order to halt ethnic cleansing and mass murder. The NATO intervention. interests or allies. exhibited military and tactical limitations. the EU has not distanced itself from the United States let alone emerged as a strategic competitor. though not all. Italian and so on). This took place after it had become clear that Russia would veto any UN Security Council authorization to act against Serbia. international law experts saw the intervention as lacking international legitimation. Not all of these cases are threats to America’s national security.

especially in Asia. Russia’s currency. Other major powers have actually tightened their bonds with Washington. especially in the realm of defense. the Putin regime is likely to have less latitude than when it was flush with oil revenues. population and wealth would otherwise dictate. banking. In addition. wide-spread positive reactions to Barack Obama’s election suggest otherwise. it successfully concluded an historic agreement on nuclear technology with Washington. And neither Russia nor China is likely to accede to Western urging for truly effective measures against Iran’s nuclear program or Sudan’s depredations in Darfur.’). The Philippines. For example. Japan has developed closer ties with the United States than at any time in the past. 128 r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. and Vietnam. both have acted to support regional states that pose significant problems for the United States. Despite a rise in expressions of anti-Americanism as indicated in opinion polls (and more reflective of disagreement with Bush administration policies than rejection of America itself). 2/3. has yet to take an overtly antagonistic position toward the United States. but the financial crisis has impacted Moscow in ways that are likely to encourage restraint. Though Moscow and Beijing have not formed an alliance against Washington. including shared interests and values as well as the inability of the EU member countries to create a military force with sufficient funding. Its huge domestic export sector has been seriously affected by changes in the world economy and Beijing has urged greater cooperation with the United States and other countries to address the impact of the financial crisis. China. Russia has engaged in talks about the sale of advanced anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran and Syria. For its part. Indonesia. As for the leading authoritarian capitalist powers. 119–139 .Lieber reasons for this long-term continuity. advanced military technology. recently welcomed a return naval visit. after having ousted the United States from its longtime air and naval bases there. Although a major balancing coalition against the United States has not taken shape. Indeed. and with world oil prices having dropped by two-thirds between the summer and autumn of 2008. where anxiety about the rise of China has shaped behavior. despite its booming economy and rapidly modernizing armed forces. power projection and the unity of command that would enable it to play the kind of role in the security realm that Europe’s size. Russia has adopted a much more critical and assertive stance. For example. the incoming Obama administration faces formidable challenges. and has been discussing a major weapons sale to Venezuela and an air defense system for Cuba. Singapore and others also have leaned more toward than away from America. not least because of their mutual distrust. India in June 2005 signed a 10-year defense pact (‘New Framework of the US–India Defense Relationship. 46. it would be a mistake to assume that the world has turned against the United States. credit sectors and commitments by foreign investors have been very significantly affected.

the international environment in which the United States finds itself is one in which there are both stubborn and lethal threats. and especially since 9/11 has often been characterized as an aberration. candidate Obama committed himself to a more rapid drawdown than the Bush administration or candidate McCain preferred. but they are difficult to achieve. Domestic Considerations: Doctrine and Policy American national security policy since the end of the Cold War. 46. presidents of both parties have invoked a sense of mission in describing America’s r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. the Obama administration is likely to find that redeployment will take considerable time. Multilateral and international mechanisms for responding to these perils can be effective. During the 2008 election campaign. the United States has characteristically reacted to being attacked by adopting strategies of primacy and preemption. The war in Afghanistan has no end in sight. As John Lewis Gaddis and others have noted. or because the administration of George W. and the willingness and ability of NATO allies to provide sufficient numbers of effective troops remains limited. the Israeli–Palestinian conflict remains unresolvable in the absence of a coherent Palestinian leadership with the capacity and authority to act on behalf of its population as well as the will to end terrorism and to work toward a two-state solution and a durable peace. Iran. And since World War II. America maintains a position of primacy. as much or more dependent on internal and domestic considerations as it is on the difficulties it faces abroad. Nonetheless. Bush was said to have overreacted to 9/11 by adopting a doctrine of ‘aggressive war’ and by abandoning past multilateral practice in order to act unilaterally. in the absence of an effective counterbalance. however. 2/3. where the Taliban has become an increasing threat and al-Qaeda has reestablished itself in the tribal areas of Western Pakistan and the adjacent border regions. 119–139 129 . either because it takes place without the restraint required by adaptation to bipolarity during the Cold War. Its neighbors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries found the United States a ‘dangerous nation’ (Kagan. Nuclear proliferation constitutes a severe and growing menace. Meanwhile. American forces are likely to disengage gradually from Iraq as its government gains greater authority and local forces assume more of the responsibility for security throughout the country. especially if American military commanders caution against the consequences of a too rapid withdrawal. and this will constrain its ability to put more emphasis on Afghanistan. The extent to which it can continue to do so is.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era National power itself by no means guarantees the achievement of desired outcomes. 2006). Venezuela and Syria have proved difficult to influence or coerce. But these depictions do not serve well as explanations of doctrine or policy. despite the desirability of progress toward a meaningful agreement. Meanwhile. In sum.

’ And in July 1994. support any friend. Bush administrations can be found in the more or less 130 r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol.6 It is also a commonplace to assert that. Afghanistan and Iraq and launched the 1999 air war in Kosovo with NATO agreement but without a formal approval by the UN Security Council. Harry Truman sent American forces to Korea in 1950 without awaiting UN authorization. But the record of the past six decades is more varied than a neat bifurcation between the multilateral past and the unilateral present would imply. bear any burden. 2/3. W. The elder Bush also worked closely with Chancellor Helmut Kohl to achieve German unification despite the reservations of Britain. John F. for example. and deliberately accepted a kind of ‘self-binding’ in order to secure common objectives (Ikenberry. are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom. Johnson. our hearts. in that Democratic and Republican administrations built upon international institutions.’ John Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address proclaimed that ‘we shall pay any price. asserted that ‘it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. in his March 1947 speech to a joint session of the Congress setting out what became to be known as the Truman doctrine. President Harry Truman.Lieber international role in ways that go well beyond the kind of limited engagement that some critics insist is a more consistent or desirable strategy. embraced alliances. meet any hardship. Bush intervened in Panama. oppose any foe. In addition. Presidents Kennedy. Nixon and Ford sent American troops to Indochina. Support for freedom fighters is selfdefense. 46. our hands. 2004). Kennedy appeared ready to launch a preemptive attack on Soviet missiles in Cuba had the Russians not backed down during the October 1962 missile crisis.’ Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address in February 1985 insisted. the Bush administration’s embrace of both democratization and primacy in its 2002 NSS and in the second inaugural address of January 2005 were not inconsistent with past rhetorical statements of American doctrine. and President Clinton used Tomahawk missiles and combat aircraft to strike targets in Sudan. 2001. France and Russia. Their cause is America’s cause. Clinton’s National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement advocated expanding the community of democracies and market economies. 119–139 . that ‘We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives–on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua–to defy Soviet aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth. Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada and George H.’ Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural address asserted that ‘Our hopes. before 9/11 American foreign policy had been multilateral in character. Other evidence of policy continuity between the Democratic Clinton and the Republican George W. President Dwight Eisenhower ordered US troops to Lebanon in 1958. In view of these precedents.

important differences. Obama is committed to a strong and likely costly effort in Afghanistan. these now include terrorism threats. and a volunteer army is much more costly than the one based on the draft. and expensive new weapon systems remain to be funded. looming deficits in the social security.5 per cent of its GDP to defense. 2/3. The problem is made still more acute by the intense partisan rancor that has characterized American politics. Domestic Capacity Can the United States sustain the costs of its global role and NSS? The answers are not simple and the difficulty of the task has increased by an order of magnitude with the financial crisis that erupted in September 2008. four were carried out under Democratic presidents and four by Republicans. Medicare and Medicaid budgets. 46. however.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era bipartisan character of decisions to intervene with military force between 1989 and 2001. This contrasts with figures of 6. Eisenhower and Kennedy years. that make the financial problem potentially more difficult than it might seem. which was phased out in 1973. the pending retirement of the baby-boom generation. They add that the circumstances in which a president may need to use force have increased since 9/11. prevention of genocide as well as in response to traditional forms of aggression. There are. The problem is not merely one of numbers. 119–139 131 . At the same time. they do advocate a policy of seeking consensus among democratic states as a way of securing domestic consensus for the use of force (Daalder and Kagan. weapons proliferation. Both he and McCain have called for increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps. Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan observe that out of eight such interventions during those years. He observes that this will be a daunting task. 2007a. The price tag for replacing worn out or obsolete equipment will be enormous. 2007). Meanwhile. the government has been without a mechanism for sustained interagency planning and for bringing the conflicting demands of finance and strategy into some kind of long-term balance (Friedberg. Aaron Friedberg emphasizes the long-term challenge of bringing means and ends into alignment. and a gradually aging population all make this task significantly more difficult. Including expenditures on the Iraq and Afghan wars.6 per cent at the height of the Reagan buildup in the mid1980s and up to 10 per cent and more during the Truman. Viewed historically the burden of defense spending as a percentage of GDP seems manageable. America now devotes approximately 4. Steadily intensifying animosity over the Clinton impeachment r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. b). The defense budget is unlikely to decrease significantly even as a drawdown of troops in Iraq proceeds. especially in view of the fact that since the early 1960s.

for example mobilization of manpower and industry in World War II. the Apollo project to put a man on the moon and 132 r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. intelligence. and without the political baggage of the previous 8 years it should. massive expansion of higher education in response to the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957. and there is a tendency to assume that public reluctance to bear the costs of foreign interventions is a function of increasing casualties (see Mueller. counter-terrorism. public diplomacy. Over-extension is to be avoided. And in their analysis. the Marshall Plan. Shortcomings in intelligence coordination before and after 9/11. Not only foreign policy and military spending. face fewer obstacles to sustaining public and congressional support. twentieth-century American history includes massive undertakings that were carried out successfully. 2007). and inadequate local. 46. Christopher Gelpi et al (2005/2006) have shown that public tolerance for the human toll of war is mainly affected by beliefs about the likelihood of success and the rightness or wrongness of the war. failure to plan effectively for the occupation of Iraq. the interstate highway program of the 1950s and 1960s. it is not self-evident that a less engaged foreign policy and reduced commitments are really what matter most. and they argue for a scaling back of foreign commitments in order to stabilize the political foundations for foreign policy (see Kupchan and Trubowitz. 1973). Whether this can be sustained. Others have argued that domestic polarization along with bitter divisions about Iraq and the war on terror threaten to erode America’s ability to sustain its international role. however. expectations about success are what matter most. However. However. reaching bipartisan consensus on highstakes issues has become exceptionally difficult. dysfunctional immigration policy. trade policy and economic sanctions are among the elements that require coordination and skilled implementation (see Ross. the war in Iraq and a heated 2008 presidential election contest have contributed to a degree of political polarization greater than that during the Vietnam era. foreign broadcasting. state and national response to the Katrina hurricane provide evidence that governmental capacity to manage large-scale challenges is sometimes badly flawed. Yet. 2/3. at first. Recent experience provides a cause for concern.Lieber scandals. In this acrimonious domestic climate. Domestic support is a sine qua non for sustainable foreign policy commitments. coordinate and execute national security policy in its multiple dimensions. remains an open question. political and military commitments. there exists the problem of institutional capacity to manage. but force deployments. 2007). Political dissensus and public judgments about whether foreign interventions will succeed or fail matter more than the scale of intervention itself. the Manhattan Project. The new Obama administration will experience at least a brief honeymoon. In addition. but this is a different matter. the contested outcome of the 2000 presidential election. 119–139 . inept public diplomacy.

Election exit polls during the 1990s found only single-digit percentages of voters identifying foreign or security policy as among the leading concerns shaping their votes. the reciprocal interrelationship and feedback loops between domestic and foreign policy come into play. 119–139 133 . Here. So too are the political skills. these circumstances changed dramatically. first from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. these factors contributed to a weakening of the Clinton administration’s ability to muster public and congressional support for foreign policy initiatives. Together. During six decades. the United States faced successive and profound threats to its national security and vital interests. In view of the sustained nature of external threat described above. These precedents offer no assurance about future successes. The intangible. the urgency of external threat. The post-Cold War era (1991–2001) provided a contrast. This did not preclude domestic dissent and disagreement. but with the passage of time. 2/3. That leaves a major uncertainty in any attempt to gauge the future domestic policy environment. from Pearl Harbor to the end of the Cold War. Television and newspaper treatment of foreign affairs also plummeted. not least to enhance the perceived legitimacy of an intervention. 46. After 9/11. let alone insure unanimity of views. Here. As noted above. the salience of foreign policy dropped quite noticeably. partisan acrimony. the possibility of a future mass casualty attack within the r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. There is one additional and often insufficiently appreciated element. it reinforces the perceived validity and acceptability of the action being taken. In the absence of consensus about the existence of a profound overall threat. The substantial domestic consensus about these threats. for example in regard to the Vietnam War. and leadership capacity of any administration as well as its diplomatic adroitness in gaining support from other countries. foreign policy elites and decision makers. political parties and the media provided a solid domestic basis for a robust NSS.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era successful waging of the Cold War. and then after a brief interlude from the Soviet Union. shared by the public. the expectation of eventual success is critical. cooperation with the European democracies becomes especially important in ways that go well beyond burden sharing because in the eyes of American opinion makers and public. disillusionment with the Iraq war and the absence of another mass casualty attack on American soil have eroded both the sense of threat and any consensus about strategy. yet indispensable element of domestic capacity is public support and what Michael Howard has referred to as the social cohesion necessary for sustaining national power and strategy. but they provide evidence that American government can develop the capability for effective response and at times even do so with speed and efficiency. but it did provide a basis for coherent and effective state action in mustering the needed resources and maintaining sufficient public support.

strengthen cooperation with Europe.Lieber United States remains significant. prevail against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. response and for paying whatever price was required in the effort to prevail against lethal adversaries. the Bush administration avidly sought to enlarge its coalition of the willing for the use of force against Saddam. even draconian. as in primaries during the previous several presidential election cycles. John McCain and Barack Obama. 119–139 . Conversely. inadequate response to global climate change and so on). support Israel. Both candidates also pledged to fight the war on terror more effectively. work toward Middle East peace. In recent years. deference to Germany. voices on the left and right fringes of the political spectrum calling for outright withdrawal or isolationism would remain limited. Challenges and Challengers Can American primacy be sustained? Threats from radical Islamist groups. it is likely that there would be a domestic resurgence of support for a very robust. the potential use of CBRN weapons and competition from authoritarian capitalist powers pose challenges that require assertive American engagement. even while they promised to carry out this task more successfully. in the absence of another such attack. Were such an attack to occur. even though its probability is unknowable. nuclear proliferation. domestic support for an interventionist foreign policy might be more contested. Even then. oppose Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. at the time. treatment of foreign prisoners. democratic allies and others have shown few signs of wanting to forego the involvement of the North American ‘Goliath. while avoiding what they identified as mistakes of the Bush administration (Guantanamo. Indeed. and be prepared to intervene to combat genocide if possible. The NSS of September 2002 included a muchoverlooked endorsement of multilateralism and. there have been six-party talks with North Korea. 46. 2/3. a good deal of multilateral cooperation has continued to take place. with more support from international partners. the 2008 major party nominees.’7 and despite heated rhetoric about ‘hyperpower’8 and real or imagined excesses of unilateralism. Britain and France (the EU-3) for their 134 r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. Illustratively. in the case of the 2008 presidential primaries. were both committed to an activist and leading world role for the United States. increase the size of the US Army and Marine Corps. Republican and Democratic candidates arguing for such policies or even for a significantly curtailed global role were relegated to the political margins and did not gain sufficient support to become plausible contenders for their parties’ presidential nominations. however. In addition. support the admission of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO.

nor other international bodies such as the EU. let alone see some other country assume the unique role it has played in world affairs. its economy and financial systems will sooner or later resume a more normal pattern of activity and growth. and a painful recession is already underway. These may or may not produce a new ‘Bretton Woods’ system. Arguably. Europe. and neither the UN. the stock market and overall business activity is quite severe. significantly less as a percentage than the burdens borne by many countries. credit. only the Japanese yen experienced a substantial rise. In addition. the $700 billion bailout for financial firms approved by Congress amounts to about 5 per cent of the country’s annual gross domestic product. The impact on real estate. insurance. effective alternatives to the role played by the United States tend to be inadequate or absent altogether. present problems are very serious and the financial crisis is the worst to hit the United States and Europe since the great depression began some 80 years ago. a massive increase in funding to combat AIDS in Africa. promotion of the multilateral Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at strengthening the NPT. Past and Future Patterns In general. The new Obama administration will continue and even intensify cooperation with other leading countries in efforts to reform the international economic and financial systems. the dollar rose sharply in value as foreign investors sought a safe haven for their funds. the Russian ruble and many other currencies. the impact of the crisis upon the US economy is actually less than for the major European powers. large parts of Asia and much of the rest of the world has provided the impetus for renewed predictions of America’s demise as the preeminent global power. Of course.Persistent primacy and the future of the American era ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. banking. 119–139 135 . the African Union. an expanded NATO role in Afghanistan and UN mandates – UNSC Resolutions 1546 (2004) and 1637 (2005) – for the US-led multinational force in Iraq. 46.) The United States will eventually surmount the present crisis. co-sponsorship with France of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. For example. and despite painful costs of adjustment. As r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. the excesses that helped to cause it will be corrected. (Among the other G-8 currencies. but agreements will be reached and the United States necessarily will play a central role in this effort. The extraordinary financial crisis that has impacted the United States. the Arab League or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations offer an effective substitute. as did the British pound. these developments do not mean that America will somehow collapse. while the exchange rate of the euro declined sharply in the early months of the crisis. 2/3. Yet by themselves.

they largely concurred on the need to increase the size of the armed forces. It may well become a major military challenger of the United States. During the 2008 presidential campaign. first regionally and even globally. Mark Haas argues that these factors in global aging ‘will be a potent force for the continuation of US power dominance. ‘American predominance does not stand in the way of progress toward a better worldy . but Moscow’s ability to regain the superpower status of the former Soviet Union remains limited. the economy is overwhelmingly dependent on revenues from oil and natural gas and thus vulnerable to softening world market prices. there is reason to believe that 136 r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. will continue to depend on rapid expansion of trade and the absorption of vast numbers of people moving from the countryside to the cities. including China and Russia as well as Germany and Japan. Time and again. even among many critics of the Iraq war. and unlike the Vietnam era. Indeed. Most other powerful states. Russia under Putin has put pressure on its immediate neighbors and seeks to rebuild its armed forces. face the significant aging of their populations. 119–139 . In short. despite extraordinary economic growth and modernization. What then about the supply side? The domestic costs and complications are evident but need to be weighed in context. there is an ample need for America’s active engagement. Despite obvious problems. America has faced daunting challenges and made mistakes. this demographic shift is occurring to a lesser extent and more slowly than among its competitors. the total population is half that of the USSR and declining by 700 000 per year. yet it has possessed the inventiveness and societal flexibility to adjust and respond successfully. It stands in the way of regression toward a more dangerous world’ (Kagan. 2007). not least the global financial crisis. Constraints on the capacity of adversaries also need to be taken into account. 2007. both economic and military’ (Haas.Lieber Robert Kagan has observed. 46. flexibility and adaptability. male life expectancy is barely 60 years of age. In addition. Although the United States needs to finance the costs of an aging population. The long-term reality of external threats creates a motivation for engagement abroad. the United States benefits from two other unique attributes. p. popular support for the troops has been widespread. and despite a heated domestic political climate and sharp disagreement about Iraq and the foreign policy of the Bush administration. but only over the very long term. China. 2/3. on the demand side. 113). The Russian armed forces remain mostly in weakened condition. as does the possibility of future attacks on the US homeland. Finally. Demography also works to the advantage of the United States. The long-term stability of its crony capitalism and increasingly authoritarian political system is uncertain. none of the leading candidates of either party called for dramatic retrenchment.

F. 2/3. but the domestic underpinnings to support this engagement remain relatively robust. 25) had proclaimed that NATO ‘is soon to be defunct. see www. New York: Free Press. and the Iraqis in Iraq. Lieber is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University. Italy. About the Author Robert J. For rebuttals see K. Poland and Portugal signed a letter by Prime Ministers Blair of Britain and Aznar of Spain. Also see Art et al (2005/2006). America’s own national interest – and the fortunes of a global liberal democratic order – depend on it. He is the author or editor of 15 books on international relations and US foreign policy. None of this assures the maintenance of its world role. Rosen (2003) and Ferguson (2004). 46. 1999).whitehouse. 7 Michael Mandelbaum (2005) makes good use of this metaphor. US primacy is likely to be sustainable. Latvia. The Netherlands. and he identifies parallels between radical Islamists and the ideology of European fascism. he is the editor of Foreign Policy (Ashgate Library of Essays in International Relations. A similar letter was signed by 10 members of the Vilnius group: Albania. 2006) has described as reactionary modernism the ideas of Nazi ideologists. ‘We cannot accept y the unilateralism of a single hyperpower’ (in Krauthammer. 4 Robert A. 2007). 2008). Hungary.’ 6 Robert Kagan (2007) makes this point. In addition. Macedonia. p. (2006) The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans. 3 Leaders of the Czech Republic. that Germany could utilize modern technology while rejecting the values of political modernity from the enlightenment and western liberalism. 2 Jeffrey Herf (1994. References Ajami. 119–139 137 .Persistent primacy and the future of the American era America’s adaptive capacity will allow it to respond to future requirements and threats. Charles Kupchan (2003. the Arabs. Estonia. 5 For example. See also Gaddis (2004). Bulgaria. Thus for the foreseeable future. Croatia. Pape (2005b) argues that balancing is taking place. Slovakia and Slovenia. For an official list of 47 countries supporting the Operation Iraqi Freedom coalition as of 27 March 2003. Lithuania. r 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1384-5748 International Politics Vol. Iceland and Turkey also contributed to the Iraq war coalition. 8 In the words of this late Clinton era oratory from former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine.html. Notes 1 I critique declinist arguments in Lieber (2008). Most recently he authored the book The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century (Cambridge University Press. Lieber and Alexander (2005) and Brooks and Wohlforth (2005). Denmark.

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