PERHAPS the most disturbing thing about the American raid on Libya is the possibility that it could turn out to be part of an ongoing retreat rather than reestablishment of American power. Historian Arnold Toynbee coined the term ``Shadow Empire'' to describe the behavior of a once-dominant world power in decline, frustrated and trying to recapture past glories. Recent US behavior displays some similar traits. Not if you apply current patriotic yardsticks, of course. Using these, Ronald Reagan has brought America back from the handwringing that characterized the late 1970s. Over the last few years, rising 70 to 85 percent national majorities have applauded the invasion of Grenada, the seizure of the Egyptian plane carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers to safety, and April's attack on Libya. It's understandable that aides talk of the President's restoration of America's old clout and prestige.
To some extent, though, a different phenomenon may be at work. Let me preface this analysis by noting the division among US conservatives between the buoyantly aggressive ``America is back on top'' crowd and ``Decline of the West'' pessimists, the latter being concerned that American global power peaked back in the 1950s and has been eroding ever since. To the first camp, President Reagan represents a living rebuttal of the slide theory. And he has certainly enjoyed real opportunity. Given public willingness to flex American muscle again, a calculating (Nixon-Kissinger type) strategist in the White House could slow the US decline or even promote a partial resurgence. The complication is that the incumbent President eschews pessimism and truly believes that it's morning again for America's prestige and global role. But key aspects of the ``Decline'' and ``Shadow Empire'' context seem compelling. Consider the following evidence of US decline since the 1950s:
Cuba and the Soviet Union now pose a major threat in Central America. Some office seekers in Texas talk about militarizing the Rio Grande to repel growing waves of illegal Mexican and Central American immigration. Libya may give the Soviets their first naval base in the Mediterranean. And more and more parts of the world are unsafe for anxious US travelers.
On the economic front, meanwhile, Japanese financial institutions are beginning to outweigh their American counterparts, in part because the United States ran a $148 billion trade deficit last year. We've become a debtor nation for the first time since 1917. And since September, the dollar has been in a free fall that would have stunned US hegemonists of the Eisenhower era.
The precedents of past ``Shadow Empires,'' out to recapture their nations' glorious yesterdays, are also intriguing. Mid-19th-century France under Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Napoleon, tried to renew original Bonapartist glories, but the so-called ``Second Empire'' proved to be a bit of a joke. The later years of Rome, too, had their ``Shadow Empire'' attempts to reclaim the fallen eagles of the great Caesars. And then there was Benito Mussolini's two-decade attempt to rebuild a second Roman Empire. That precedent, alas, even involved military action in Libya!
President Reagan's recent actions at least partly fit the classic mold of nations descending into shadow imperialism. Moreover, it's even possible to sketch a coherent body of critical analysis, substantially foreign, that Ronald Reagan has (1) increasingly oriented his foreign policy toward mediagenic confrontations with unpopular ``hate figures''; (2) aimed his sword at small third-world nations -- Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua, and Lebanon; and, meanwhile, (3) avoided more intractable and complex foreign policy problems.
The theory rings at least partly true. Certainly the attack on Libya was more visceral than strategic. Predictably, moderate Arab regimes have been further alienated. Given the regional destabilization from the oil price collapse and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the further backlash stirred up by our flamboyant but inconclusive strike at Libya may jeopardize pro-US regimes in Egypt and Jordan. Or so respected analysts contend. Absent diplomatic repair work, April may mark a watershed in declining US Middle East influence.
The disruption of US influence in Europe is harder to evaluate. The French say they might have signed on for a more decisive strike, but not a Rambo-like one-shot. Maybe. British public opinion, in turn, has been so critical of Margaret Thatcher's collaboration with the US attack that, in the words of former Republican Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, ``We are far more likely to bring down Mrs. Thatcher than we are Qaddafi.'' Transatlantic conservatives worry about gains by Europe's anti-American left and the possible threat to US military installations and agreements. David Watt, the conservative former director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, has charged that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) may be ``Reagan's real victim.'' Here at home, meanwhile, embittered hawks are hinting at a partial US pullback from Europe.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the US, only just past the peak of its power, overreached in Vietnam and launched an American decline that lasted a decade and a half, culminating in the great 1979-80 embarrassment of the Iranian hostage crisis. The question today is whether America's ``comeback'' under President Reagan may not include substantial ingredients that promote America's ebb even as they disguise it with ruffles and flourishes and the swoop of attacking F-111s. To the extent that Toynbee's thesis has some relevance to the mid-1980s United States, our policymakers could give up Sylvester Stallone movies and immerse themselves in the works of Edward Gibbon, Nicolo Machiavelli, and Prince Klemens von Metternich. More strategic depth could make a useful national difference.
Kevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of The American Political Report.