Has America Become a Headless Superpower?

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Ever since Ho Chi Minh's 1968 Tet Offensive helped force President Lyndon Johnson out of that year's presidential race, the more sophisticated among America's enemies have paid close attention to U.S. domestic politics. And right now, they may like what they see: a nation of unrivaled power unable to choose a leader.

Whichever man wins the convoluted set of Florida courtroom encounters more reminiscent of an Elian Gonzalez miniseries than electoral politics, the unavoidable reality remains this: The election was essentially a tie. Gore may have edged out Bush in the popular vote, and Bush may have the lead in electoral votes, or vice versa. In addition, the electorate split the Senate 50-50 (pending a result from Washington State), and narrowed the GOP majority in the House to eight seats. Whether the hand on the Bible at January's inaugural belongs to Bush or to Gore, the next president will be dogged from Day 1 by questions over his popular mandate — and a potential impasse in the legislature that could paralyze the presidency.

But for the watching world, America's malaise resides not simply in the fact that the U.S. can't seem to agree on just how many recounts of the Palm Beach vote doth a president make. The leadership crisis of which it may be a symptom has been in the making since the end of the Cold War. Partisanship ended at the shoreline back when Americans saw themselves as threatened by an "Evil Empire," and it's almost unthinkable that the elected representatives of either party would have tolerated a spectacle as demeaning as last year's impeachment proceedings in an era when the president was viewed as commander in chief of a nation on constant alert. The end of the Cold War has left the U.S. uncertain of its interests and role in a wider world, and under those circumstances the nation's politicians have been inclined to hack away at the authority not only of Bill Clinton himself, but of the office he occupies. Presidential authority, of course, applies primarily to matters of foreign policy — the constitutional separation of powers has traditionally limited the executive branch's authority at home.

After all, it was not scandal but policy concerns that led Congress in 1997 to strip President Clinton of his powers to negotiate "fast-track" trade pacts — agreements that could be put to the legislature in total, rather than be amended on a line-by-line basis. The President lost that vote because of the defection of pro-labor Democrats determined to avoid being railroaded into another NAFTA agreement. Nonetheless, that sent a message to America's potential trade partners: Don't bother to negotiate comprehensive agreements with the President, because he has no authority to deliver. The fast-track vote ended negotiations over the inclusion of Chile in NAFTA, and has left President Clinton pretty much on the sidelines of regional free-trade initiatives since then.

The point was made even more strongly in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty debacle. The Senate's rejection of a treaty signed by the President left in disarray U.S. efforts to curb nuclear proliferation around the world. And it allowed the likes of India and Pakistan to simply shrug and promise to consider adopting the treaty when Washington does.

The immediate challenges facing the next president include the matter of Osama Bin Laden, and how to retaliate if he's found to have authored the bombing of the USS Cole; signs that Saddam Hussein is almost home free in his battle against international sanctions; and the shift from peace back to low-intensity war between Israel and the Palestinians. Then there are some of the questions bequeathed by the Clinton administration, from whether to build a missile-defense system and how to deal with North Korea's attempts to end its international isolation to whether to sell Taiwan sophisticated weapons systems and how to deal with Pakistan's precarious nuclear-armed military junta. And even some of the foreign policy standards, such as responding to Russian arms control proposals and China's reluctance to implement trade agreements.

Those challenges only become more difficult with the perception that the president lacks a mandate and the ability to deliver on threats and promises. Indeed, with the constraints created by the election result and the likelihood of an economic slowdown in the face of an increasingly complex and challenging international situation, it's a wonder that either man still wants the job.