WASHINGTON -- Where are we? At this midpoint of the Bush administration, engaged as we are in conflict throughout the world, are we winning?
The great democratic crusade undertaken by this administration is going far better than most observers will admit. That's the good news. The bad news is a development more troubling than most observers recognize: signs of the emergence, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet empire, of an anti-American bloc anchored by Great Powers.
First, the good news. The great project of the Bush administration -- the strengthening and spread of democracy -- is enjoying considerable success. Most recently we witnessed the triumph of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which followed the Rose Revolution in Georgia, bringing historic breaks from authoritarianism in two key former Soviet republics. Less publicized were elections in two critical Muslim states -- Indonesia and Malaysia -- in which Islamic parties were decisively defeated.
Elsewhere in the Islamic world, we saw (though many downplayed) the Afghan miracle -- free and successful elections in perhaps the world's least hospitable soil for democracy. That was followed by Palestinian elections and the beginning of political reform. Even more encouraging was a public statement issued just weeks earlier by more than 500 Palestinian intellectuals demanding democracy, the rule of law, transparency and an end to Arafat-style dictatorial rule.
And now, elections in Iraq, which are obviously problematic, but also very promising. Not only will they establish a precedent for free elections and constitutionalism. They will also effectively transfer power to the heretofore disenfranchised majority of Iraqis -- Shiites and Kurds -- who will then have a real stake in helping the United States defend the new Iraqi order against the Baathist insurgency.
Moreover, the election process and the vicious terrorism unleashed against every element of it have exposed the insurgency as not the nationalist resistance that sympathizers in the West pretend it to be, but as the desperate opposition by dead-enders to both Iraqi democracy and majority rule.
Now, for the bad news. I am not talking here about the obvious, the continued survival of al Qaeda, although it has clearly been diminished over the last three and a half years.
I'm talking about the other, more subtle challenge to Pax Americana: the first stirrings of what might become an anti-American coalition involving at least two Great Powers. The most remarkable fact about the post-Cold War era is that for the first decade and a half no such opposition emerged. Historically that is almost unheard of. Hegemonic powers, such as Napoleonic France and imperial and Nazi Germany, tend almost inevitably to spur the creation of a coalition of Great Powers to oppose and contain them.
That may be beginning again. The quiescence with which Russia accepted the Soviet collapse may have run its course. Russia's helplessness at the loss of Ukraine followed a long string of humiliating losses: first the external Third World empire, then the outer East European empire, then the inner empire of 14 Soviet republics.
Add to this NATO's attack on Serbia, Russia's traditional Balkan ally, and the expansion of NATO into the Baltic states. Putin's Russia, already moving decisively back to traditional Czarist authoritarianism, then suffers political defeat in Ukraine, which it considers its natural patrimony. This only compounds and embitters the feeling of alienation from the West in general, and from the United States in particular.
It is no accident that Russia then begins hinting at making common cause with China. This is potentially ominous because of China's rising power and its status as the leading have-not nation on the planet, the Germany of the 21st century. In December, during the week of the rerun Ukrainian election that finally brought the pro-Western Viktor Yuschenko to power, Russia made two significant moves toward China. First was the announcement of intensified economic cooperation in developing Russia's vast energy resources. More ominous was the Russian defense minister's Dec. 27 announcement of, ``for the first time in history,'' large joint military exercises on Chinese territory.
China in turn is developing relationships with such virulently anti-American rogue states as Iran. Add such various self-styled anti-imperialist flotsam as Syria, North Korea, Cuba and (Chavez's) Venezuela, and you have the beginnings of a significant ``anti-hegemonic'' bloc -- aimed at us.
This is not a new Cold War. The United States will still remain the vastly predominant world power. But it is a challenge that history has waiting for us on the day the War on Terror is won, and perhaps even before. There is no rest for the weary.