Things fall apart: The limits of U.S. power, at home and abroad

Yeats warned nearly a century ago in his chilling poem, "The Second Coming," that "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." He said, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

The Irish poet was writing in the immediate aftermath of World War I, the European war of all against all that some of us regard as the beginning of the end for Western civilization.

Still, even after World War II — in truth a resumption of the first one, with Asia brought into play — and the Cold War, which ended with the Soviet Empire in pieces, the West stood on top of the heap. This time it was dominated by the United States, which in 1989 became the world's "sole superpower."

Its currency became the world standard, and its military stationed itself in more than 120 countries around the globe. It had no rivals as the dominant blue water navy. No one was able to challenge us militarily or economically. Until they did.

Vietnam showed the limits of American power. Opposition to the war was intense and widespread because of the draft, the conscription of America's young to fight in a war that was soon seen as senseless slaughter.

In 1975, the last Americans were airlifted out of Saigon as the victorious North Vietnamese Army rolled into the city. This wasn't supposed to happen, but it did. Things fell apart.

When Bush the Elder whipped together a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and did so easily, American power seemed to have been restored. The first Gulf war ended, though, without an occupation of Iraq, and with Saddam Hussein still in power.

This grated on the neocons, who managed over time to maneuver us into a second Gulf war, through the invasion of Iraq. It was a war, they said, that would pay for itself, but of course that was a lie. We paid plenty for it, in treasure and in casualties — maybe $3 trillion, when all is said and done. Things fell apart. They didn't go as planned.

Nor have they gone as planned in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history and one we are losing. They keep telling us of progress there, but they're fibbing.

We have fallen into the habit of losing all the wars we start, including the war on drugs, which has been and is an unmitigated disaster if judged on the effectiveness of the stated mission and not on the multibillion-dollar jobs empire it has become.

Our leaders told us we had to join a global economy, one based on free trade. We exported some 51/2 million manufacturing jobs and became a "service economy." Free trade turned out to be a myth, as other nations saw to it that our ability to infiltrate their domestic markets was minimized.

Washington was, as MIT economist Simon Johnson so aptly put it, purchased by a financial oligarchy. The oligarchs have done well for themselves. When their lucrative mortgage scam fell apart, the politicians they had purchased bailed them out with the better part of a trillion dollars in taxpayer money.

In the last few years, every effort has been made by the government and the Federal Reserve Board to prop up the stock market. Now that seems to be falling apart. World markets are in turmoil — and that's an understatement — panic is in the air, and anarchy made a fiery appearance on the streets of London.

People expect their leaders to figure a way out of this mess. But, as we saw clearly in the debt ceiling debacle, they can't even begin to find that magic path. It's not hidden; it doesn't really exist.

Politico ran a story this week about how the Obama team is strategizing its reelection efforts. Since the president can't very well run on his record, which isn't very impressive, to say the least.

His brain trust, which he makes clear is mainly between his own famous ears, will devote itself with the help of its media boosters to the character assassination of Mitt Romney and any other GOP candidate who might pop to the front of the field.

I'm amazed that any sane person would want to become president at this time. The house and plane are nice, but the job seems quite impossible in the present circumstances.

Ron Smith's column appears on Fridays. His email is

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