2008 will probably be known as America's annus horribilis. The economy tanked. George W. Bush is going out as the most unpopular president in history since polls began measuring popularity. America has begun to look as though it might be on the ropes at home and abroad. The latest bad news came with the report that Samuel P. Huntington, the foremost political scientist of his era, who taught for decades at Harvard, has died.
Huntington was the realist par excellence, never shy about delivering a gloomy prognostication. His most famous effort was the clash of civilizations thesis, which might seem to be borne out by the latest clashes around the globe, not least the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. But it's also the case that Huntington declared, in the pages of The National Interest, that the declinists, who came into vogue during the late 1980s, led by Yale historian Paul Kennedy, were all wet. With his typical flair, Huntington pointed out that the very prospect of decline can motivate a society to avoid it. America, he argued, was far from being headed for the skids.
So what will it be in 2009: the dark vision of the clash of civilizations or the sunny promise of a rejuvenated America?
Certainly the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip would seem to suggest a lot more bloodshed in coming years. As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas correctly noted in Egypt, Hamas brought the attack on itself by refusing to negotiate a new cease-fire and relentlessly bombarding Israel with rockets. Predictably, the Europeans have responded with distress signals. Somewhat eyebrow-raising, however, is the Russian condemnation of Israel's response. Given Russia's own incursion into Georgia and denuding of Chechnya, it seems more than a little odd for the Kremlin to voice its opposition to Israel's actions. The optimistic scenario, however, is that Israel delivers a punishing enough blow to Hamas to strengthen the hand of the Palestinian authority in the West Bank to conclude some kind of peace deal, which the Obama administration would dearly love to produce.
When it comes to Russia, Barack Obama would also like to improve ties. Moscow has been taking a tough line, pledging to ramp up production of nuclear weapons. Such a move would be not only counterproductive, but also a waste of resources. Moscow should have learned its lesson from the cold war, when spending on weaponry helped bankrupt the Soviet Union. Anyway, the precipitous decline in oil revenues is almost certain to hold for 2009, severely straining the Mevedev-Putin government's coffers. Will this lead to a coup in Russia? Not likely. But it will circumscribe the ability of the Putin government to defy Washington and Europe. The optimistic scenario is that Obama backs out of the costly and preposterous missile-defense system that George W. Bush has insisted upon in Eastern Europe in exchange for a new arms-control treaty with Moscow, no NATO membership for Georgia and a deal over Iran. Though it has eluded many American commentators, the fact is that for most of their history Russia and the United States have enjoyed friendly, not hostile, relations. There is no reason that should not continue to be the case. If Moscow pursues a truculent course toward the United States, however, it will legitimize the cold warriors in Washington who crave confrontation. It would be a great pity if Russia were to undermine Obama even before he enters office.
The fateful decision that will hover over Obama is what to do about Afghanistan and, by extension, Pakistan. Afghanistan is the running sore of American foreign policy. The Bush administration bungled the challenge early on by diverting troops for the specious war against Saddam Hussein. Now Obama has vowed to up the number of troops fighting in Afghanistan. But there is no guarantee it will work. Afghanistan could become his Vietnam. Obama will also face the temptations of a superpower elsewhere. The action intellectuals that he is bringing into his administration, to borrow a phrase from Theodore White, are somewhat reminiscent of the crew that John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson relied upon (until they turned upon Johnson after Vietnam became a clear failure).
In this regard, a new U.S. Institute of Peace and Holocaust Museum task force on genocide provides much to ponder. The task force has recently issued a troubling document called "Preventing Genocide." Like the neocon "Defense Planning Guidance" document of 1992, which provided a blueprint for American world domination, this new document would essentially give an Obama administration carte blanche to roam around the world in search of stamping out evil whenever and wherever it chose. It would create an "Atrocities Prevention Committee" and calls upon the director of national intelligence to "initiate the preparation of a National Intelligence Estimate on worldwide risks of genocide and mass atrocities." This is too vague. Would Russia be accused of committing genocide in Georgia? The Israelis in the Gaza Strip? The report is a stalking horse for liberal interventionism. Essentially, it wants to outlaw war by calling it genocide except when the United States engages in military action. This is as hubristic and grandiose as anything the neocons have proposed. As the British historian A.J.P. Taylor once observed, the real danger isn't when liberal statesmen can't live up to their principles. It's when they can.
Then there's the economy. As Obama prepares a trillion-dollar stimulus package, the economy will be stimulated in the short-term. But then hyperinflation may loom.
The New Year, however, isn't really a moment for such party-pooper brooding. It's a time when the prospect of cheer and optimism is supposed to prevail. If Obama can deliver on even a small percentage of what he's promised, then America will be in far better shape. Simply saying good riddance to the Bush administration is a fine start.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.