Portents of declining US and Western prestige marked the closing months of 2011. There is of course the ongoing economic crisis, and the inability to respond to it effectively. But another sign was the rapidity with which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved to consolidate his power on a sectarian basis. He denied the US even the hint of a decent interval before beginning to disassemble the democratic project in earnest.

The Iranians, perhaps very foolishly, are rattling their rockets and pressing on with their nuclear ambitions in the face of sanctions and the threat of air strikes. And the Egyptians, utterly dependent on US aid, felt they could raid the offices of NGOs sponsored by the Democratic and Republican parties as well as by Germany, the leading European power.

Easily the most worrying and interesting signs, however, are in the events that followed the air strikes on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the night of November 25/26.

Today, many speak of “soft power” - the power of ideas - when thinking about questions of prestige and legitimacy. Others focus on what seem to be the “material” realities of hard power. What the “international community” thinks doesn’t matter; what is important is how many tanks or aircraft carriers you have, or the size of your GNP.

Prestige or reputation is kind of an old school term of analysis in international relations. It allows for thinking about how so-called “soft” and “hard” power interact with one another. It also draws attention to the wider context of ideas and beliefs through which people understand and react to events in world politics.

The reputation of a state, a nation or a civilisation is part and parcel of what is taken to be true about that state, nation or civilisation. Such truths cannot be created for instrumental purposes or controlled through bureaus of “public affairs”, as the notions of soft power and propaganda imply.

Rather, prestige and legitimacy arise from how others interpret your actions. They are products of the histories and identities of peoples and of their interactions with one another.

The context in which hard power is used, as in an air strike, revolves around the beliefs and reactions of people who come to be involved in the event. Accounts and interpretations are produced in government, in the media and elsewhere, and circulate among various audiences. These understandings and the actions based upon them determine not only the efficacy of the air strike in strategic terms but also define what that air strike is, what it means at the most fundamental level, and how it matters politically.

As is well known, Taliban insurgents as well as the Haqqani network enjoy sanctuary and receive support.

“So illegitimate is US military power in the eyes of the world that US soldiers no longer are granted even the right to self-defence when attacked.”

The joint US-Afghani operation that led to the air strikes early on November 26 was designed to disrupt this cross-border traffic. An operation in October in the same area had been aborted when it came under sustained rocket propelled grenade fire. US officers suspected that Pakistani authorities, informed of the operation, had tipped off the Taliban. 50 insurgents were thought to be active in the area.

After midnight on November 26, the US-Afghan force came under fire from what turned out to be Pakistani army outposts. They called in air strikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Understandable distrust on both sides led to this outcome. Air strikes called in by “troops in contact” are a tricky business in the best of circumstances, and in the dead of night in rough terrain tragic mistakes can happen all the more easily.

Pakistani military and other officials put it out that the strike was pre-planned, part of a “plot” by Nato. The funerals of the Pakistani soldiers became a media spectacle. Pakistan used the air strike to close down a US drone base in Pakistan and cut off Nato supply lines. The dire unpopularity of the US among Pakistan’s population made a reaction of this kind inevitable by the Pakistani government.

That is worrying enough for the sustainability of the Western project in Afghanistan and the success of the war on terror in Pakistan. Even more shocking is the extent to which audiences around the world thought the air strikes seemed illegitimate. US State Department officials argued that the US should apologise as a consequence, regardless of what really happened.

It was as if the air strikes had wantonly targeted civilians and not soldiers firing at US and Afghan forces. Lost in the fog of war is the fact that the Taliban - who make use of those border crossings - are by far the biggest killers of civilians in Afghanistan.

So illegitimate is US military power in the eyes of the world that US soldiers no longer are granted even the right to self-defence when attacked; even precise use of airpower against military targets is regarded as some kind of war crime. This is an impossible position for the US to be in. It undermines and renders counterproductive one of the chief remaining sources of US power: its ability to use its overwhelming military forces.

Ultimately, these are the bitter fruits of the US’ self-defeating response to 9/11.

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.              –Al Jazeera