August 29, 2005, the day when hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, may have marked the beginning of the end of the American Empire.  Four years after the horrors in New York and Washington, D.C., showed the nation’s vulnerability to external attack, the Hobbesian free-for-all in New Orleans demonstrated just how fragile it is internally.

In that same week, four less widely reported events contributed to a shift in the global strategic equation: At Rotterdam’s spot market, oil exceeded $70 per barrel for the first time; on China’s Shandong Peninsula, Russia and China conducted a joint military exercise for the first time in history; the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a conciliatory report on Iran’s nuclear program; and in Baghdad, the drafters of Iraq’s new constitution declared “the fixed principles and rules of Islam” to be the basis of all future legislation.

On all four fronts, the American interest mandates the adoption of a new, essentially defensive, strategy.

Some wars or disasters have the capacity to create strong bonds among the American people and to enhance their sense of mutual solidarity.  The devastation along the Gulf Coast will not be remembered as such an event.  Many “lessons of Katrina” will be drawn by pundits and bureaucrats, but the most significant one is that America’s inner cities are easily turned into lawless jungles.

The cause of the problem is not in the looters’ alleged poverty.  Sri Lanka is much poorer than New Orleans, yet, when the tsunami struck last December, the government and the Tamil Tiger guerrillas quickly agreed on a truce to enable rescuers to do their work unhindered.  When Bombay was flooded last summer, the crime rate in India’s largest city actually dropped—although most of its inhabitants live on $1,400 per year.

The problem is that the collective striving embodied in “We the People” makes no sense unless there is a definable “people” to support it.  New Orleans shows that the absence of any sense of such kinship in today’s America is not limited to American Indians and Muslim immigrants; it is also rampant within the African-American urban underclass.

The solution does exist, but it demands the reversal of four decades of an unholy alliance between America’s elite class and her underclass against the rest of us.  As Sam Francis has noted, we pay the taxes, do the work, suffer the crime, and endure political and cultural dispossession at the hands of the elite.  The underclass, in the meantime, feels “empowered” to treat our laws, our institutions, and our morals as shackles to be thrown off at the first opportunity.

That much is now obvious to America’s friends and foes alike.  (As the Arab-language daily Assennara editorialized, Katrina “reminds us of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which revealed back then that the Soviet Union’s shiny facade was rotten from the inside.”)  For that reason, it is to be feared that those who want to harm America will consider focusing their nefarious plans not on some shiny monument to capitalism but on the basics of infrastructure and public utilities in a major urban area with a large population of potential “objective” allies.  It is therefore necessary to introduce federal legislation that will treat rioting and looting in time of emergency as a capital crime.  For Homeland Security purposes, we must establish legal and operational precedents that can be applied quickly in case of a major terrorist attack or, indeed, any other emergency that may lead to a breakdown of law and order.  It is also necessary to redirect the resources spent on Iraq to the improvement of the emergency-response and management mechanisms at all levels.

The immediate impact of Katrina on energy prices and the longer-term problem of the likely chronic shortage of oil demand an urgent response from the White House.  America must not continue to depend on oil and natural gas, which are disproportionately found in some of the world’s most volatile regions.  The goal of diversifying energy supplies has to be treated as a national-security issue of the highest order.  Some petroleum analysts are looking to the fourth quarter of 2005 as the moment at which all-time world oil production will peak—among them, author Matthew Simmons, who believes that Saudi Arabia has already peaked and “the odds are 95 percent” that the world has exceeded sustained peak oil production.  Many Americans are unaware of the momentous nature of this event.  Even with the new Caspian and Alaskan fields, overall production in 20 years’ time will roughly correspond to that of 1985—but there will be twice as many people in the world, and the booming economies of China and India will additionally increase pressure on demand.  Biofuels and other renewable resources are still expensive to exploit, but technological improvements have the potential to make them a viable alternative to fossil fuels, invulnerable to political instability.

Reducing dependence on oil is probably the clearest of all prerequisites for a viable national-security strategy.  It is also necessary in view of the fact that a major global producer, Russia, and the second-largest consumer, China, are overcoming their old hostility in order to forge a common front against what they perceive as Washington’s hegemony in Central Asia and the Far East.  While the world needs to be multipolar in order to be normal, and America needs to cease being the hegemon in order to recover her identity, the realignment brings uncertainties and potential dangers.  The American interest demands a pragmatic acceptance of the emerging redistribution of power in Asia and policies that will seek to manage, rather than resist, the emerging multipolar structure.

The change from the Soviet-era tension, and even open military confrontation, to global partnership in Sino-Russian relations is one of the most significant events of this decade.  Potentially in the cards during the decade of unparalleled U.S. hegemony in the 1990’s, it was accelerated by NATO’s war against Serbia in 1999, which eroded the confidence each had in her ability to advance and protect her interests by exercising her veto at the U.N. Security Council.  That confidence suffered a further blow when the United States and Great Britain attacked Iraq without explicit Security Council approval.

“Peace Mission 2005,” the first joint military exercise launched by China and Russia, sent a signal that was not about military technology or training; it was, to quote the Financial Times, “another sign of Washington’s waning political influence on the western shores of the Pacific.”  Russia is already by far China’s most important arms supplier, and the two share other compatibilities.  China needs Russian oil; both countries have a problem with separatist Islamic movements; and both reject any international interference.  Both want to contain U.S. influence in Central Asia.

The challenge that this emerging alliance presents to the United States is more pressing than any other global issue except for the ever-present threat of jihad.  The geopolitical equation demands the establishment of an alliance, informal or otherwise, between the United States and India, China’s sole natural rival in Asia.  The forging of a special relationship with Delhi is long overdue, quite apart from our relations with Beijing—India is a long-neglected natural ally in the “War on Terror”—but no such relationship can be effected for as long as Pakistan continues to be perceived in Washington as an essential strategic partner, which she is not.

Almost equally important is to de-escalate the tension caused by Iran’s nuclear program.  President Bush appeared to be in no mood to do so when, speaking on Israeli television last August, he said he was prepared to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  His language reflected a concern and an agenda.  The concern is Washington’s view that the acquisition of those weapons by the government in Tehran would be injurious to the vital interests of the United States.  The agenda, set by the neoconservatives years ago and summarized in Mr. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his “Axis of Evil,” is to effect a regime change in Iran or else to neutralize it by military force as a meaningful factor in the regional equation.  It takes the existence of an Iranian nuclear-weapons program for granted and asserts that there are only two things that will stop it: revolution from below or an attack on its nuclear facilities.  The long-awaited revolution is not happening, however, which the promoters of this agenda take as proof that a preemptive attack is all the more urgent.

It must not happen.  The consequences would be horrendous.  A massive Shiite insurgency in southern Iraq would make the country utterly unmanageable.  The rise of oil prices to well beyond $100 per barrel within days would trigger a worldwide recession.  Tehran would have an incentive to support or even sponsor massive terrorist attacks against the United States.  There would be a new crisis in trans-Atlantic relations, far deeper than the one over Iraq; and China and Russia would be drawn even closer together.

If Tehran is seeking nuclear weapons, it is only following in the footsteps of other regional powers—notably Israel, India, and Pakistan.  In such an environment, its security concerns are real.  It is surrounded by U.S. bases in Turkmenistan to the north, U.S. troops in Iraq to the west, and more U.S. troops in Afghanistan to the northeast.  Its remaining neighbor, Pakistan, is armed with nuclear bombs, inherently unstable, and potentially hostile.  The Arab world remained aloof when Iraq attacked in 1980.  In such circumstances, it is easy to understand why Iran’s rulers would desire an alternative deterrent.  The notion that they would seek to threaten the United States with up to a half-dozen weapons that they may build over the next decade is silly.  The mullahs are devious and dogmatic, but they are neither suicidal nor mad.  There must be no “Operation Iranian Freedom,” period.

Next door in Iraq, it is essential to develop an exit strategy and to withdraw, within a year at most.  This will entail some unpleasant compromises.  Addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Utah on August 22, President Bush said he was confident that Iraqi negotiators would produce a constitution “that reflects the values and traditions of the Iraqi people.”  The problem is that those “values and traditions” include an agreement among the three communities that Islam is to be the foundation for all laws and that any proposal that contradicts Islamic religious teachings will be removed from the statute book in the new, democratic Iraq.

These principles are reported to have been approved by American diplomats in Baghdad, prompting a secular Kurdish politician to complain that the United States has sided with the Shiites:

It’s shocking.  It doesn’t fit American values.  They have spent so much blood and money here, only to back the creation of an Islamist state . . . I can’t believe that’s what the Americans really want or what the American people want.

“Perhaps the Americans are negotiating to get a deal at any cost,” he continued, “but we will not accept a constitution at any cost.”

This is a remarkable development.  It may reflect excessive eagerness in Washington to maintain some momentum on the political front, at a time when large areas of Iraq remain affected by an open-ended guerrilla insurgency.  Accepting concessions that would ensure a swift adoption of the Iraqi constitution may be seen as a way out of the looming imbroglio.  Nevertheless, Washington’s acceptance of the notion that Islam is to be the foundation of Iraq’s democracy is light years away from the concept of “spreading democracy in the Middle East” that has been used as a justification for the war in Iraq.  It is extremely unpalatable, but less so than the continuation of an open-ended military engagement that is draining American blood and treasure at a time when we are facing new challenges around the world and experiencing unsuspected weaknesses at home.

A policy that includes skillful diplomacy in Asia, a gradual constructive disengagement from the Middle East, and an ever-greater reliance on alternatives to oil for our energy needs is a sound alternative to the quest for hegemony and the resulting containments, deployments, and long-term commitments.  It is dictated by common sense, experience, and a sober assessment of the American interest.