Limits of a Sole Superpower

How three strongmen - Saddam, Milosevic, and Suharto - are managing to undercut US influence.

Slobodan Milosevic. Saddam Hussein. Suharto. Autocrats of different hues and ideologies presiding over seething problems in separate parts of the globe that have little or no connection.

But there are common links.

Each of this trio personifies what some experts say is a threat to post-cold-war international order, with the potential of unleashing political and economic shockwaves that could rock countries beyond their own borders.

Each strongman may also be demonstrating the limits of the United States, with its unrivaled military, financial, and political power, to defuse far-off crises - even when American lives and global financial stability are at stake.

Asserts Michael Mazarr of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute: "The three crises are not symptomatic of some upsurge in instability. But in all three cases, we are seeing US influence on the wane."

Consider the following:

* Mr. Milosevic, progenitor of the breakup of former Yugoslavia, is defying anew US-led initiatives to contain Europe's historic ethnic feuds with the recent crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo that risks embroiling neighboring states.

* Saddam, the dictator of Iraq, illustrates the restraints on Washington's efforts to maintain stability in a critical oil-producing region and to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

* President Suharto, the enduring general reelected last week to a seventh term, stubbornly resists US and IMF calls for an end to business practices that are igniting social unrest and could rock financial markets from Singapore to New York.

"These are three distinct problems which may be three major problems of the post-cold-war world," says Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a foreign policy journal. "They are all threats to an American conception of world order, which is essentially a world in which violence, terrorism, and aggression are minimized, a world in which open markets for trade and capital exist."

How to respond to such challenges is the subject of fierce debate among American policymakers and academics six years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Where a broad consensus on containing communism once underpinned US foreign policy, there is as yet no agreement on how to address these new threats to international stability and US security.

"There is still no clear ... doctrine for operating in a post-cold-war environment grounded on what are our fundamental needs," says Paula Dobrianski of the Council on Foreign Affairs. "There is still no clear definition of when and in what situation the US will use force."

Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Indonesia illustrate perhaps the greatest constraint on the employment of the world's mightiest military beyond its use as a diplomatic bargaining chip.

The crisis over Iraq's defiance of United Nations arms inspections provoked the largest US military deployment since the 1991 Gulf War. Yet when faced by worldwide opposition to unleashing it against Saddam and the realization that airstrikes could not eliminate his illegal arms programs, Washington opted for a diplomatic resolution.

In Kosovo, long-standing US threats to intervene militarily against a Serbian crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority and the presence of the US-led NATO force in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina failed to dissuade Mr. Milosevic from unleashing his paramilitary police earlier this month.

The crisis in Indonesia, though economic in nature, also points up the limits of US military power. The 100,000 US troops that form the backbone of American security policy in Asia would be of little use should Indonesia erupt in wholesale unrest, unleash massive refugee flows, and push the region's shaky markets into free fall. In fact, many experts say Suharto is calculating that the dangers posed by Indonesia's meltdown will force the US and the International Monetary Fund to proceed with a $43 billion bailout despite his spurning of reforms that would hurt his personal fortune and those of his family and cronies.

SUHARTO'S tactics point out another US weakness: the ability of regional despots to outmaneuver the world's lone superpower by exploiting local conditions and playing to the foreign policy priorities of other major countries.

Saddam has proved to be a master of such a strategy, successfully weakening the US-led Gulf War coalition and support for UN sanctions by offering lucrative trade deals to profit-hungry France and Russia.

The Iraqi leader may have also weakened Washington's influence by negotiating a resolution to the standoff over weapons inspections with the UN chief.

"Various countries are looking at US leadership and the extent to which we are willing to lead," says Ms. Dobrianski. "The way in which the situation in the Gulf was handled has diminished our standing. Consequently, countries are going to view it as open season on the US and an opportunity to test our resolve."

The crises in Iraq, Indonesia, and Yugoslavia also show the post-cold-war limits imposed on American power by domestic politics and the dispute over the role the US should play in the world.

Some in Congress are balking at using taxpayers' money to bail out a corruptly run Indonesian economy. The US threat to use force against Saddam drew criticism in Congress, where there is also opposition to maintaining US troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the expiration of the peace-keeping mandate in June.

And Milosevic may be counting on US lawmakers to object that the American military is too thinly spread, if the White House tries to fullfill its threat to intervene militarily in Kosovo.

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