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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: If America's fading, it's going out with a roar

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China's handover a yawn compared with ribaldry of US politics

According to some economists and futurologists, we are witnessing the twilight of the American empire and the dawning of the Chinese empire.

Time will tell, although I seem to remember two or three decades ago some economists and futurologists declaring it was only a matter of time before the US was eclipsed by Japan. Right on cue, Japan Inc promptly succumbed to a malaise which it still hasn't entirely shaken off.

Regardless of statistics and trends, the fact remains that the world cannot take its eyes off America, while our eyes glaze over if we contemplate China for any length of time.

Take politics. In case you blinked and missed it, China has a new leader: one middle-aged male Communist Party apparatchik with hair that's been Brylcreemed into submission has taken over from another middle-aged male Communist Party apparatchik with hair ... well, you get the picture.

As prearranged, the incumbent stepped down, the successor stepped up, and that was that: a swift, seamless transition.

The only concession to novelty or generational change is that the new boss is one of a handful of the party's 80 million members who doesn't wear spectacles.

And wasn't that party convention a gripping, giddy affair?

For a while there I thought we'd crossed live to an Accountancy 1 exam at Beijing University.

America, on the other hand, knows how to hold an election: it takes years, costs billions, throws up concepts like legitimate rape and self-deportation, and features everything from a candidate whose name has become synonymous with the byproduct of a certain sexual act (Rick Santorum) to Clint Eastwood haranguing a chair.

And when it was all over we had the priceless spectacle of the right-wing punditry, stranded in their alternative reality in which Fox News is a legitimate news organisation and showbiz bottom feeders like Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are credible presidential contenders, trying to work out what went wrong.

To be fair, China did manage to have a decent political scandal this year.

It involved a power couple who wanted to turn the clock back to the Maoist era while simultaneously enriching themselves, the poisoning of an English go-between possibly linked to British intelligence, and a police chief barricading himself in the US consulate.

Although there was a suggestion that the Lady Macbeth figure was having an affair with the go-between she has since been convicted of murdering, there simply wasn't enough of that essential component of a juicy political scandal. I refer of course to sex.

While each day provides a new twist in the David Petraeus scandal, it's already abundantly clear that the men running America's military/security machine spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on their sex lives.

Take General John Allen, Petraeus' successor as commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, who dispatched 20,000 to 30,000 "suggestive" emails to the Florida socialite at the centre of the scandal.

Imagine if you can the level of pent-up desire needed to generate that volume of correspondence: compared to Allen, J. K. Rowling suffers from crippling writer's block. And how creatively depraved do you have to be to keep coming up with saucy lines after filling a bookshelf with them?

As Salon.com pointed out this week, Barack Obama's Afghanistan commanders haven't exactly covered themselves in glory: one was fired for incompetence after less than a year; another lasted a year before being fired for insubordination, having disparaged his political masters for the benefit of a journalist; Petraeus was there a year, then went off to run the CIA and continue the adulterous affair he'd begun while on active service; and in between cold showers, Allen has spent the last 17 months in a Hunter S. Thompson-style speedwriting frenzy.

Given the commanders seem more interested in impressing embedded writers or pursuing obsessive cyber-affairs, it's little wonder the West's intervention in Afghanistan looks increasingly likely to end with a whimper, swiftly followed by the restoration of Taleban despotism.

This disorientation is what happens when ego meets hagiography.

America's top brass have long been the object of media fawning, but the coverage of Petraeus plumbed new depths of sycophancy.

In a 2007 Vanity Fair profile the hagiographer's stock in trade - inflating the mundane into the heroic - was taken to absurd lengths: Petraeus is extolled for withstanding the physical pain of sitting through two days of a Congressional hearing on a hard, uncushioned seat.

Worse follows: "He is a man of such distinction that in the army legends have formed about his rise. He possesses a stature so matchless it deserves its own adjective - call it Petraean perhaps."

As long-serving Sunday Express editor and columnist John Junor used to write when particularly nauseated: "Pass the sick-bag, Alice."

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