America’s self-image is of the lonely caped crusader of comics, Superman. I think a more appropriate analogy would be the faintly entertaining but almost always irritating fat cat Garfield, albeit with more lethal weapons than bad breath at its disposal.

The comparison to Garfield is not accidental, as the latest report by the Trust for America’s Health [1] showed a marked increase in the number of overweight and obese Americans. Another reason this analogy strikes a nerve is that the cat’s handler is an incompetent buffoon – comparisons to the current leadership seem almost too easy from there. The analogy means, unfortunately, that the Middle East must be compared to lasagna, but that probably reads as among the nicest things said about the region recently.

Fat okay, but where do the guns come into it? Read on.

America’s backward leap

A wealthy family that got rich on oil co-opts religious extremists to maintain its stranglehold on power. Western readers of that statement would immediately assume that I am referring to the Saudi royal family, while at least some non-Western readers would surmise that my reference is to the Bush White House.

For neutral observers, the comparison is quite compelling. Much as the Saudi royal family signed away its role in society to Wahhabi leaders in return for political patronage, US Republicans have coasted to electoral victory on a combination of support for the rich that is balanced with concern for society’s morals, as defined by the religious right. In other words, it is the politics of fear that is used to put harried middle-class voters into submission. This is very similar to the politics of fear that Muslim countries use to keep their populations in line, often engaging in lectures on threats to the religion.

There are many other similarities. Muslim governments often change education syllabi to accommodate the demands of religious authorities. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is virtually unknown in Muslim schools, as Islamic scholars object to the idea of human beings descending from monkeys. The religious right in the United States has adopted similar tactics of late, pushing notions such as “intelligent design” back on to campuses. The generation of Americans growing up in such schools could well approach the world with the same narrowness of mind and rigidity of purpose that Islamic countries produce.

Middle Eastern dictators need Israel as an available excuse so that they can themselves stay in power. Being portrayed as an opponent of Israel in Arab media carries with it a decided advantage, as any political opponent would immediately be labeled as pro-Israeli. In much the same way, US President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney probably need the Middle East to remain the sorry mess that it is for their own selfish reasons. This week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indulged in name-calling of Americans opposed to the Iraq war, likening them to Nazi-era sympathizers. In doing this, he has pulled a page straight out of the “Arab Despot Book of Governance”. Before you ask, the tome is available for members and their friends only.

The Cold War kept the United States honest, by providing a tangible enemy. The resulting focus on innovation and technological leadership, combined with a free market for entrepreneurs, produced much of the success that characterizes the country’s attraction to immigrants from everywhere. During this period, Americans learned from their initial failures in World War II to construct a strong technological infrastructure that was designed to sustain economic growth. US universities welcomed academics fleeing the rigid structures of their own countries, allowing them to explore and debate the limits of scientific knowledge. That in turn provided the world with a succession of breakthroughs that improved living standards everywhere.

The end of the Cold War removed a key element in this balance, namely the omnipresent external threat. True to form, that provided lopsided behavior as Americans focused more on guaranteeing their standards of living, while resisting the influx of new ideas. Quite simply, they did not see the need to accommodate quaint foreign customs anymore, seeing as the war had already been won. That bit of national hubris did hide the important demographic change of an aging population. Leave aside projections of continued immigration for now, and the fact is that the United States is aging at the same rate as Old Europe. The relatively free system I talked about above did not include payments for retirement or medical insurance, leaving an ever increasing hole in the ability of the nation to sustain its living standards. Initially, this was handled by increasing welfare payments that were offset by rising tax revenues – but once the latter fell, America’s structural deficit became visible to everyone.

Confronting this dynamic, America’s aging population rebels against anything that could make the situation worse in its mind. The abortion issue is an example – people who fret about who will be around to pay for their medical insurance and welfare would naturally prefer more children than fewer. In much the same way, fears of future job losses may well push US political parties, which have thus far remained blessedly liberal, further toward protectionism. This is a disaster, as the time when the US could make things competitively has long passed.

Immigration

As I wrote earlier, demographic calculations vary wildly once you remove immigration from the calculations. The question that Americans need to ask is whether ongoing trends allow their country to remain a magnet for immigrants. Assuming that the rightward shift in policies and practices is fully executed, will anyone from Asia want to live in America? It’s a difficult question, but one that is easy to answer when you ask yourself why Asian immigrants do not fancy living in Japan even if immigration authorities can be persuaded to grant them residency. A helpful hint would be to consider Japanese political changes in the face of that country’s own rapidly aging population.

Americans recognize that the main attraction for foreigners to own their financial assets is their country’s status as a solitary superpower. Any threat to that status would logically cause investors to diversify their holdings, at an obvious financial cost. This is what the financial implication of a multipolar world is. A terrorist attack produces an overreaction from the US precisely because the country cannot economically handle these consequences. It needs to be the solitary superpower to keep its girth intact, in other words. Hence “Garfield, with guns”.

Food fight

Assuming that sea changes in demographics do not occur immediately, as they never do, restoring the system to balance would require significant sacrifices that America’s ruling elite would find difficult to justify, particularly in the absence of an overwhelming external threat. This is where “Islamic fascism” (to use the White House term, not my own) presents itself as the logical answer, albeit to a question that should never have arisen in the first place.

For their part, Islamic tyrants have long used external threats to justify their continuity, which is why they will relish and prolong the current standoff with the US. It can be truthfully said though that the reasons leading the tyrants to this end-game are substantially different from those leading the United States. For one, Islamic countries have a poor record of economic growth. Saudi Arabia saw its per capita income fall to one-third the level prevailing at the end of the 1970s, due to its careless management of productivity infrastructure. The resulting plethora of jobless youth could be fed, clothed and sheltered, but not satisfied. Thus the country’s ruling elite turned the attention of the disaffected youth externally, toward the problems in Palestine and Afghanistan.

This situation explains why neither the US-led West nor Islamic tyrants have any reason to control an escalation of the current situation. The result will be tragic, leading to World War III, although it will benefit any country that stays out. China and India should keep that in mind. [2]

Americans who like to portray the conflict in the Middle East in civilizational terms need to confront the notion that they are attacking Islamic fascism not because it represents anything different from their own values, but because it possibly represents the future of their own culture. Like poles repel, after all.

Notes
1. See F as in Fat: How obesity policies are failing America, 2006.
2. See World War III – what, me worry? (Asia Times Online, July 25) and China and India in World War III (Asia Times Online, July 26).

https://web.archive.org/web/20101101034000/http://atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/HI02Ak03.html