The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson published a provocative essay in the magazine Foreign Affairs recently. His contention was that empires, when they entered a phase of terminal decline, tended to do so rapidly rather than passing through a long itinerary of degradation. If Mr Ferguson is right, his theory raises interesting questions about the power of the United States in the Middle East.
Mr Ferguson believes the collapse of the American empire will be provoked by domestic economic and demographic realities. Specifically, the ratio of American retired persons to workers is rising, so that the United States, with an inadequate fiscal system, will sink into an unmanageable cycle of debt as relatively fewer workers support an expanding base of retirees. As Mr Ferguson explained in his book Colossus: The Price of America's Empire from 2004, the only way for the US to overcome this crisis is through self-defeating policies, namely to vastly increase income and payroll taxes, slash social security benefits by equally dramatic amounts, or to cut discretionary spending to zero.
While Mr Ferguson is primarily an economic historian, he is also acutely sensitive to the psychological dimensions of empire. His most quoted line about the US is that it is an empire "with a short attention span". There is an ethos to empire, he asserts, that is necessary to keep the imperial project running. For Mr Ferguson, the world benefits from an effective liberal empire, as it did during the 19th century when Britain ruled. The US is the natural candidate to play that role today, yet keeps resisting this.
As Mr Ferguson lamented in Colossus: "For all its colossal economic, military and cultural power, the United States still looks unlikely to be an effective liberal empire without some profound changes in its economic structure, its social make-up and its political culture." Segue to the Middle East. To what extent has the Obama administration's actions in the region confirmed, or contradicted, Mr Ferguson's observations? There has been a disconcerting feeling since President Barack Obama took office that if the American empire were to begin fraying, the process in the region would resemble what we are witnessing today. Time and again, notably in his Cairo speech, Mr Obama has preferred acknowledging Washington's limitations to warning foes against testing America's will. The US seems awfully easy to thwart.
It's difficult for the Obama administration to project a different image when it seems so impatient to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, where its military commitment in the past decade has been the greatest. By September the US will have withdrawn all combat forces from Iraq, even though prominent American officials, past and present, believe this is a bad idea at so crucial a moment in Iraq's stabilisation.
In Afghanistan the situation is different, but not by much. There, Mr Obama has decided to increase the US military presence, but within the framework of a promised withdrawal of American forces starting in July 2011. That the administration may or may not meet the deadline is less significant than the fact that the president felt he needed to set one. Mr Obama knows that voters are less concerned about defending American influence overseas, particularly in the broader Middle East, than they are about ensuring that foreign ventures have a time limit.
In dealing with Iran and Syria, Washington's mettle has also been wanting. Mr Obama made a campaign pledge that he would engage both countries without conditions. Implicit in this undertaking was that his predecessor, George W Bush, had missed an opportunity to advance American interests by refusing to open a dialogue with Tehran and Damascus. A year later, however, Mr Obama's engagement of Iran has failed, and while his administration has sent an ambassador back to Damascus, it gained nothing in exchange from the Syrian regime. Syria continues to undermine US interests in Iraq, the Palestinian areas and Lebanon, and has shown no intention of distancing itself from Iran.
The Obama administration has also publicly taken off the table a military operation to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Not only has the US reassured the Iranians on this count, it has not concealed its refusal to approve an Israeli attack on Iran. Regardless of whether Washington's judgment is sound, brinkmanship is an essential part of successful negotiations. If Mr Obama's allies see the president as passive, as accepting Iran's fait accompli, they will not be motivated to act themselves; or worse, they will react in disparate ways, probably to Tehran's advantage.
American leadership means just that: leading by co-ordinating the actions of allies in defence of common interests. Yet American allies, both in the Arab world and Israel, have shown a disconcerting willingness of late to flout Mr Obama. The so-called moderate Arabs rejected the president's request to normalise relations with Israel, while only last week Israel sought to torpedo US-mediated proximity talks with the Palestinians by announcing new construction in East Jerusalem on the day the American vice president, Joe Biden, arrived in the country. The administration expressed anger, but now what? A Washington ineffective in dealing with Iran and Syria, but that also backed down in an earlier dispute with Israel over settlements, will need to exert much effort to impose some respect.
America still possesses tremendous power, and it may be premature to declare it on the ropes just yet. But the Obama administration appears deeply reluctant to employ that power, and has no discernible ethos giving higher meaning to its actions. If America's decline is sudden, nothing in its present Middle Eastern behaviour will delay the onset. Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut