The decision to go to war to overthrow the government of Iraq will bring unreckonable death and suffering to that country, the surrounding region and, possibly, the United States. It also marks a culmination in the rise within the United States of an immense concentration of unaccountable power that poses the greatest threat to the American constitutional system since the Watergate crisis. This transformation, in turn, threatens to push the world into a new era of rivalry, confrontation and war. The location of the new power is of course the presidency (whose Augustan proportions make the “imperial” presidency of the cold war look like a mere practice run). Its sinews are the awesome might of the American military machine, which, since Congress’s serial surrender of the constitutional power to declare war, has passed wholly into the President’s hands. Its main political instrument is the Republican Party. Its financial wherewithal is the corporate money that inundates the political realm. Its strategy at home is restriction of civil liberties, deep secrecy, a makeover in its image of the judiciary, subservience to corporate interests across the board and transfer of personal wealth on a colossal scale from the average person to its wealthy supporters. Its popular support stems from fear engendered by the attacks of September 11–fear that has been manipulated to extend far beyond its proper objects. Its overriding goal, barely concealed behind the banner of the war on terrorism, is the accumulation of ever more power, whose supreme expression is its naked ambition to establish hegemony over the earth.

The steps in the rise of this power can be traced through international and domestic events. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war ended, the United States was left in a position of global privilege, prestige and might that had no parallel in history. The moment seemed a golden one for the American form of government, liberal democracy. The American economic system was equally admired. In the previous two decades, a long list of nations–in Southern Europe, in Latin America, in Asia–had chosen both systems, largely of their own free will. Even more astonishing, most of the peoples under the rule of the collapsed Soviet foe were making the same choice. The Soviet system had not only disintegrated; it had discredited itself. No rival was in sight. There were good reasons, even if one did not suppose that “the end of history” touted by Francis Fukuyama had arrived, for hoping that these trends would continue. A basically consensual rather than a coerced world seemed a real possibility.

Who could have guessed that barely a decade later the United States, forsaking the very legal, democratic traditions that were its most admired characteristics, would be going to war to impose its will by force upon an alarmed, angry, frightened world united against it? It’s clear in retrospect that somewhere near the root of the problem was the very existence of the unchallengeable American military machine. In part, the imbalance with other nations was accidental. The machine had been built up in the name of containing the considerable military forces of the Soviet Union. When, against all expectation, the Soviet Union suddenly disappeared like a bad dream, the American giant found itself towering alone over the world. America likes to see itself as a force for good. Yet like all unchecked, unbalanced power, such might had, as the founders of this country knew so well, the potential to corrupt its possessors. The decade that followed was a mixed picture in which the raw arrogance of power was tempered by a lingering respect for the opinions of other nations and a search for common ground in the name of humanitarian objectives. In the first Gulf War, the will and the muscle to go to war were mainly American, but skillful diplomacy won the support or acquiescence of most nations, and the cause–repelling an act of aggression–won wide acceptance. In Kosovo, the United States acted without explicit United Nations agreement, angering many nations, yet the action was taken in the name of NATO, not merely the United States, and Serbian outrages on the ground helped create a climate of support around the world. The turning point, of course, came on September 11. Yet even then the United States gained considerable support for its first act of “regime change”–overthrowing the Taliban government of Afghanistan, which many understood as a measure of self-defense in the aftermath of a horrifying attack upon the United States. It was in the year that followed that the ambiguities of the 1990s were resolved in favor of the coherent, radical new policy of dominance asserted through the unilateral, pre-emptive use of force to overthrow other governments. The more clearly the Administration stated this policy, the more the world rebelled.

The path through domestic events to this same destination arguably begins with the impeachment attempt against President Bill Clinton, in which the Republican Party abused its majority power in Congress to try to knock a President of the other party out of the executive branch. The attempt failed, but the institutional siege on the presidency continued in the resolution of the freakishly close vote in Florida in 2000. In a further abuse of government power–in this case the judicial branch–the President was chosen by a vote not of the people of the United States but of the Supreme Court. The message of Republicans at the time in Congress and the Florida legislature was that if judges did not produce the result they demanded, they would bring on a constitutional crisis in the House of Representatives. A new conception of democracy was born: Freedom is your right to support what we want. Otherwise, you are “irrelevant.” You can vote, but you do not decide. “Unilateralism” was born in Florida.

The tragedy of America in the post-cold war era is that we have proved unequal to the responsibility that our own power placed upon us. Some of us became intoxicated with it, imagining that we could rule the world. Others of us–the Democratic Party, Congress, the judiciary, the news media–abdicated our obligation to challenge, to check and to oppose, letting the power-hungry have their way. The government of the United States went into opposition against its own founding principles, leaving it to the rest of the world to take up our cause. The French have been better Americans than we have. Because the Constitution, though battered, is still intact, we may still have time and opportunity to recoup. But for now, we will have to pay the price of our weakness. The costs will be heavy, first of all for the people of Iraq but also for others, including ourselves. The international order on which the common welfare, including its ecological and economic welfare, depends has sustained severe damage. The fight for “freedom” abroad is crippling freedom at home. The war to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has provoked that very proliferation in North Korea and Iran. More ground has already been lost in the field of proliferation than can be gained even by the most delirious victory in Baghdad. Former friends of America have been turned into rivals or foes. The United States may be about to win Iraq. It has already lost the world.