ASPEN, Colorado - It's hard to think of a happier place than Aspen. The tiny mountain city in western Colorado is not only a place of breathtaking beauty, it is a place of inconceivable abundance. The town of wooden houses that was built as a mining town in the late 19th century turned into a town of wealth and well-being in the late 20th century. The wealthy of New York and Chicago come to Aspen to ski in the snows of December and January, and the tycoons come to vacation in the lovely hills of July and August.
Aspen is the place where the new American capitalism celebrates itself with restraint and elegance. No more gritty robber-baron capitalism, but a refined capitalism of environmental awareness, art collecting and outdoor concerts.
And yet even in Aspen, the Fourth of July this year differed from any previous Fourth of July. Although there were barbecues on the lawns, fireworks in the evening against the snow that remains on the mountaintops, there was an unpleasant silence in the air. A silence of restrained anxiety. A silence of an empire that has lost its way, of a superpower that is no longer certain of its supremacy.
Ostensibly the problem is Iraq. The Americans cannot forgive themselves or their president for the adventure on the Tigris in which he has embroiled them. But the truth is that in Iraq the situation is improving. General David Petraeus, the commander of the armed forces in Iraq, is succeeding in imposing a relative calm there, and the elected government of Nuri Maliki is gradually becoming stabilized. In 2007-2008 Washington repaired the serious mistakes it made in 2003-2004 by instituting a sophisticated policy that succeeded in winning over both Shi'ites and Sunnis.
The achievements of the new strategy are still brittle and reversible, but they are likely to enable the next American president to withdraw from Iraq cautiously, gradually and without disgrace.
So the real problem is not Iraq. The problem is America. The problem is that 80 percent of Americans believe that their country is on the wrong track, and 75 percent do not believe that the economic situation next summer will be better than it is now. The problem is that of General Motors. The company's value is now a fraction of Toyota's. The problem is that Chrysler is on the verge of bankruptcy, Starbucks is in trouble and the Dow Jones is in deep trouble. The problem is that the budget deficit is out of control, the national debt is irreparable and the dollar is worthless. Something about the way the Americans do things is not working. Something is not as it used to be.
Three Rottweilers are now at America's throat: very expensive energy, badly shrinking credit and a collapsing real estate market. Uncle Sam is bleeding because his dependence on energy is greater than that of other countries. His addiction to credit is more serious than that of other countries, and he is very exposed to the bursting real estate bubble. Cheap energy, cheap money and accelerated construction rescued America from the collapse of the Twin Towers and the high-tech crisis at the beginning of the decade. They enabled America to celebrate as though there were no tomorrow and no bill to pay.
But tomorrow is here. The bill is steep.
The bottom line is cruel and profound: The American century is over. The 40 years (1945-1985) when America was the exclusive leader of the free world are over. The 20 years (1986-2006) when American was in effect the sole superpower are over. The era of imperial America, which dictated the world agenda, is over.
The very fact that America exported itself is acting as a boomerang against it. The Americanization of the world is what is weakening it.
The residents of Aspen are worried this summer because they are not waking up to a reality of another cyclical economic recession. They are waking up to a challenge the likes of which they have not known since Franklin Roosevelt invented the New Deal for them. Will a new Roosevelt be found for them in November?
While the rain begins to fall on the green valley that descends to the river, shortly before the start of the Sunday afternoon Dvorak concert, the concerned liberals of Aspen are talking about Barack Obama. Not because Obama really is a new and proven Roosevelt. Far from it. But because Obama is a promise for change. Obama is 2008's desperate longing to repair America.
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