The United States of America is an empire.
That is not a bad thing.
It has always had imperial pretensions, from the expansionism through the North American continent (Louisiana, Florida, Oregon, Texas etc), to the gradual build up in dabbling outside its borders (Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, Panama etc) and then the post World War II phase that included West Germany, Japan and South Korea (to date the greatest success of the US empire). The failures that followed received more coverage: Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Haiti, Afghanistan and now, of course, Iraq.
The United States at the end of World War II inherited the mantle of the world's leading empire from the fading United Kingdom, after waiting in the wings for some time and engaged in a battle for hegemony with the Soviet Union...and we know who blinked first in that clash of the titans.
Since the collapse of the USSR the United States has become, by unspoken desire and pre-determined default the worlds imperial power; following on from the great empires that have littered mankind's social progress. The European Union, the only entity that could possibly challenge this authority, is too busy dividing and falling.
Empire is not a bad thing, the trouble is to be a true empire you have to embrace the concept and in the US we have an empire in denial, as Niall Ferguson describes it: "Consuming on credit, reluctant to go to the front line, inclined to lose interest in protracted undertakings...America as a sedentary colossus...a strategic couch potato."
Iraq is no better example of this negation of power, the US occupies a strategically important area to build its empire but the troops can't stay too long otherwise the people back home get twitchy; therefore the occupation will fail in its hamfisted swiftness. Nothing can be achieved in a rush, just look at the length of time the US stayed in West Germany and Japan (10 and 7 years respectively) to rebuild those nations; indeed they still keep troops in both countries to this day; the rewards of imperialism.
An empire that doesn't want to be an empire is a genuine danger to the world, I believe the US needs to embrace its status as the leading power in the world and relish this role, rather than fall painfully between two stools as it attempts to flex its imperial muscle constrained by a lack of faith in its actions. Currently though, we have a US foreign policy paradox of dictating democracy, enforcing freedom and exhorting emancipation.
The United States has another weakness, it is an empire built on debt and a debt that is mostly in the hands of foreign (Asian) banks. America is the world's biggest borrower and chief IMF economist Ken Rogoff said he would be "pretty concerned about a developing country that had gaping current account deficits year after year, as far as the eye can see, of five percent or more, with budget ink spinning from black to red, with the likely deficit on GDP ratio for general government exceeding five percent this year and open ended security costs."
In short hand that means 8 trillion dollars worth of debt in foreign hands.
Much of the financial malaise comes from Bush's misguided economic policy but much of the hard edge of the imperial behaviour also stems from his policy. In a sense the US needs a leader who has sounder fiscal sense but can see through the concept of a liberal empire and make it a reality.