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According to an old Cold War joke, a Soviet official travels to the United States for a visit and upon his return, his comrades ask him what he saw. "I saw capitalism in decline," the official, in charge of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, answered. "What does that look like?" they asked him. "Such glorious decline!" he replied.

An Israeli visiting the United States only sees the enormous spaces and endless abundance, but American newspapers argue that this is merely a veneer covering the death throes of capitalism.

The most learned commentators, historians and economists in the U.S., tell of a declining power, collapsing under a heavy burden of enormous debts that paid for extravagant consumption. They describe destructive international involvement, deepening socioeconomic gaps and decaying social services.

Some of the writers paint an even gloomier picture to promote social and political change. The liberals want to see alternative energy, health insurance and an exit from Iraq; the conservatives are wary of a rising China, and of unbridled immigration that will alter America's character. There are also those who honestly believe that the most powerful superpower in history has reached the limit of its capabilities, and that it is now its turn to shrink back.

In terms of global power and influence, the U.S. currently has three sources of power that remain unmatched in the world: the most powerful military with the most advanced arsenal; Hollywood and the Internet, which disseminate the English language, consumer culture and the American dream to the masses; and elite universities, which attract the most talented people in the world to America. As long as the status quo prevails, it will be difficult for other countries to challenge the U.S.'s global leadership.

Despite all its power, the U.S. is finding it hard to deal with local forces in the Middle East and Pakistan that threaten its position, forces which are only growing more powerful. Pakistan is shaky, Afghanistan is on fire, Iraq is disintegrating, Iran is continuing with its nuclear development, Lebanon is divided and Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. Even friendly Israel, which depends on Washington for nearly everything, ignores America's repeated calls to remove outposts and alleviate the Palestinians' lives in the West Bank.

Is this just local phenomena taking place at the edge of an empire (like little Vietnam)? Or is this a fundamental shake-up of the regional order the U.S. put in place?

This question is the basis for President George Bush's tour of the Middle East, which will focus on the petroleum-producing states of the Gulf. Bush has come to reassert American hegemony in the region against the forces threatening it. That is what is motivating him - not the evacuation of outposts, Palestinian freedom or rescuing his "pal" Ehud Olmert from the Winograd Committee to prevent a political crisis in Israel.

These goals are obviously important to him, but they are secondary. From Bush's point of view, the diplomatic process he put in place for Israel and the Palestinians is meant to restore America's standing in the Arab world and curb the criticism against him for his lack of involvement and pro-Israel bias. Bush may express himself in an unsophisticated manner, but he has no illusions that a Palestinian state will be established during his tenure, or that the Arab states will suddenly become liberal democracies.

Bush's tour of the region became necessary following the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which played down the seriousness of the nuclear threat and was interpreted in the area as America withdrawing from its commitment to protect Israel and Saudi Arabia from an Iranian atomic bomb.

It was no coincidence that the trip was announced a day after the intelligence estimate was released, as the need to assuage America's allies in the region climbed to the top of Washington's list of priorities.

What can Bush gain? The U.S. president will try to give a booster shot to the pro-American regimes of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, in order to slow their fall into Iran's sphere of influence, and isolate the regional implications of the fiasco in Iraq. Bush will try to keep the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations alive and leave his successor at least the semblance of a peace process, and maybe some progress toward a final status agreement. Beyond this, and a demonstration of friendship for rulers in the region, Bush can do little more.