America sees farther because America stands taller. . . . We are the indispensable nation.
--Madeleine Albright, Feb. 18, 1998
How is it that the indispensable nation had to rely twice in the space of four months on the likes of Yevgeny Primakov and Kofi Annan to save itself from serious embarrassment at the hands of the error-prone dictator of a middle-sized country? It took some doing. From October 29 to March 2, the Clinton administration's management of the most recent phase of the Iraq crisis fluctuated between mediocre and abysmal. Virtually no rule of diplomatic prudence and good sense escaped violation, including, one fears, the rule holding that the strategic misjudgments of great powers rarely go unpunished.
This did not have to happen. Being the only superpower does bring certain inescapable burdens, such as having to deal with the free-riding, envy, special pleadings, and financial entreaties of various states. But no law decrees that such burdens must in short order turn a position of substantial strength in a key region of the world into one of foundering weakness. Yet that is precisely what the Clinton administration has managed to do.