Who has been America’s Enemy No. 1 over the past two decades? Did the “only superpower” exaggerate some dangers, prompting it to overlook other more dangerous ones in its long-term calculations? Has the US exhausted its capacities in this century’s wars, decreasing its appetite for world leadership, or has it finally realized that the burden of running the world is a task that exceeds the capacity of any country, no matter how vast and powerful an empire?
In the question about the future of America, there is a question about the future of the entire world. Whether you agree with its politics or not, America still plays an important role in different parts of the world. For example, only America has the ability to intervene decisively or threaten to do so if China decides to take back Taiwan by unfriendly means. And only America is able to stand up to Russia if it should think about threatening Europe with tanks and not just cyber attacks. This does not mean at all that what the US will be in the current century is the same as it was in the previous one. The world has changed and, with it, the rules of the game and power cards. But for now, America remains present in every part of the world. Sometimes in the form of military forces, and others in the form of expertise. It is already present at maritime passageways, keeping a watchful eye on nations, whether with permission or without.
Who was America’s most dangerous enemy in this century? Was it Mullah Omar, who established the antiquated Taliban regime in Afghanistan and refuses to recognize the rules of international law and international legality? Is it the regime of Mullah Omar that provided Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda with the stronghold to taunt the American empire, leading to attacking it in its own backyard? Was the most dangerous enemy to America, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS who struck out from Mosul, erased the international borders between Syria and Iraq, and established what he called the “Caliphate” all the while beheading people in front of cameras?
Who was America’s most dangerous enemy in this century? Was it the commander of the Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, the star pupil of the school that bombed the Marines headquarters in Beirut and targeted embassies, without forgetting the kidnapping of the Western hostages under pseudonyms, and their subsequent release through plain theatrics? Was the No. 1 Enemy Soleimani, who fiercely and brilliantly implemented the Supreme Leader’s decision of “prolonging the American war in Iraq,” which was both an Iranian and Syrian decision at the same time and was mainly aimed at prolonging the war and attrition and preventing the establishment of a stable, pro-Western government in Baghdad? Was it Soleimani who prevented the establishment of a stable, Western-friendly Lebanese government in Beirut after the assassination of Rafik Hariri? Or was it Soleimani who excelled in engineering the “small armies” he founded and pushed into the Syrian arena to save the Assad regime? Was it Soleimani who supported the transformation of the Houthis from a regular component of Yemen to an Iranian proxy whose mission was to target Saudi territory as part of the comprehensive encirclement plan launched by Tehran targeting the most prominent countries in the region? Is it true that Soleimani, whose assassination was ordered by former president Donald Trump, went so far as to consider a major coup that would make Iran a link between the Chinese and Russian influence in hopes that Tehran would be the exclusive agent for this alliance in the Middle East region?
Today, we remember what intelligence, diplomatic, and media centers can do when they decide to exaggerate an issue and turn it into a constant item in public discussions and behind closed doors. At the beginning of the century, we witnessed an attempt to paint Saddam Hussein as Enemy No. 1. The truth is that his regime continued, but it was tamed and put under sanctions, and there were no ties connecting it with al-Qaeda. However, the disciplinary campaign that was launched in Afghanistan was looking for a second stop, and its choice fell on Iraq. The first decade of the century provided an opportunity for America to discipline Saddam Hussein’s regime, but this adventure was quite costly. The second decade provided an opportunity for NATO to discipline Muammar Gaddafi, with the international will trying to piece together the Libyan parts. Gaddafi, too, was once painted as Enemy No. 1. Time will prove that the “King of kings of Africa”, who was sometimes harmful to his neighbors and the world, was always very dangerous to his people, and was not the most dangerous enemy of America.
Vladimir Putin was not ready in the first decade of the century to play the role of Enemy No. 1. His first concern was to restore Russia, both in spirit and armed forces. Over the next decade, Americans and Westerners would discover that Putin was not a continuation of Yeltsin, that he was just another man who had come from elsewhere on another mission. They discovered that the first item on the Russian president’s agenda, who enlisted generals, businessmen and the media, was a clause from the USSR; to deplete the West. Today we are witnessing the declaration of Western disappointment with Putin, which translates into summoning ambassadors to Russia or expelling his spies, as well as condemning his army’s commotion near Ukraine and the occasional cyber attacks here and there.
Today, the Biden administration does not face an enemy of the caliber of Mullah Omar, bin Laden, al-Baghdadi, or Qassem Soleimani. It is clear that this administration is looking for a way to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran, while seeking to pair the return with something that helps reassure Israel that its security conditions are met, and dispel some of the concerns of the countries of the region. The current US administration, which is preparing to complete its military withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, does not place Iran in the position of Enemy No. 1. Despite its current clashes with Putin’s behavior, it will probably not give him the position of Enemy No. 1 either, especially since his country’s economy is almost parallel to that of Italy.
It is increasingly believed that for two decades America has been preoccupied with many enemies, and almost overlooked the rise of its true Enemy No. 1, which is China. The crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic only added to this. Experts say China was steadily progressing towards the highest rank of the global economy. They note that it has done a great deal of damage to the Western model and its image. China has shown that hundreds of millions of people can be lifted out of poverty and plunged into successive technological revolutions without falling into the trap of Western democracy and without abandoning the iron fist of the One-Party State. China demonstrated that democracy is not a prerequisite for progress and innovation. China is not Russia, nor does it adopt Putin’s style. It certainly is not Iran as it encircles the world with Silk Roads and loans, not with missiles and drones. Iran is not Enemy No. 1, nor is Russia, but China is tending towards being well-deserving of it.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.