Why Obama is no longer leader of the free world
Somewhere in a cave, in Pakistan or Afghanistan or wherever, a tall, skeletal man with a long stick and dodgy kidneys must have been laughing on Monday.
No one has a clue where Osama bin Laden is, or even if he is at all. We hear little from or about him these days, apart for the odd report of a sighting or claim of his death. But assuming he is alive, we might imagine this conversation two days ago with a minion. I translate very loosely from the original.
"Father to us all, I have news to cheer you up." "Cheer me up, Abdullah? Whatever can you mean?" "Come off it, Ossie, you've been miserable ever since Liverpool equalised against your beloved Arsenal yesterday, thereby handing the title to the Great Satan of Old Trafford." "Ah, well, Eboué was certainly foolish to barge into Lucas. Yet, as Allah is my judge, it was never a penalty."
"Be that as it may, sire, our fortunes prosper elsewhere. The credit agency Standard -amp; Poor's threatens to downgrade America's AAA credit rating unless more drastic steps are taken to cut the deficit."
"This is indeed wondrous news, my son. Bring me a mint tea and the dialysis machine, and we'll have a right old knees-up with the lads."
Who could blame him for celebrating? A few months before the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that set America's corkscrew spin in motion, the S-amp;P report heightens the sense that this empire is disintegrating faster than any before it.
The warning's economic import may be negligible, because there is no chance of the US, cosseted by what remains the world's reserve currency, and with its economy reviving, defaulting on its loans. No creditor would call in such a loan knowing that a default would cripple the global economy in about 17 seconds.
Yet the psychological impact is immense. The three interconnected forces that destroy empires - military over-reach, lack of money, and the catastrophic loss of self-confidence that stems from the other two - have coalesced with astonishing speed since the Twin Towers fell. When George W Bush was elected President he took on a country swimming in cash and basking in its post-Cold War hegemony. Eight years later, despite the healthy surplus Bill Clinton left him and a barely broken economic boom, he had doubled the deficit by wasting trillions on imbecilic wars and trillions more on tax breaks for the wealthy. He inherited a swaggering empire at the zenith of its financial, military and cultural might, and bequeathed to Barack Obama a traumatised country in precipitous decline.
Obama's wise refusal to dominate a wretchedly confused Nato campaign confirms something unimaginable a few years ago. The President of the United States is no longer the leader of the free world, but a fellow-traveller in a free world without a leader at all.
Proper historians eschew the Boy's Own-style of history that sources dramatic power shifts to individuals, analysing them in terms of sweeping economic patterns.
Yet in this case, they might allow themselves one of those "What if?" questions they generally disdain.
What if the hanging chads hadn't hung, or if the Supremes had heeded Diana Ross's dictum that "You Can't Hurry Votes (No, You Just Have To Wait)" by allowing a full Florida recount?
With Al Gore in the White House, there would have been an Afghan campaign after 9/11, but no wicked oil grab in Iraq and no obscenely un-Christian tax cuts for the rich. Far from doubling, the deficit would have remained stable or shrunk.
The America at which we glance across the ocean today is shrinking before our eyes. The Chinese, to whom the US is in ever growing multi-trillion hock, own the very pants Obama walks in.
The real issue that faces America today is that, despite a recovering economy, it is a country broke, dispirited, bamboozled and petrified. It is terrified by the suddenly bleak middle-class future faced even by graduates, and by the staggering speed with which China threatens to supplant it.
Although the links between the Bush and Bin Laden families made a fine film in Michael Moore's hands, they seemed a diverting conspiracy theory. Yet it appears that Ossie and Dubya are destined to be conjoined in history after all, as the double act that destroyed the American empire in record time. Only one of them will be laughing about that, of course, and it should be one hell of a tenth anniversary bash, come September, in the cave.