The End of the American Empire in the Middle East





Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is "The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s" (Haymarket Books). Reprinted with the kind permission of the author.

As we've watched the dramatic events in the Middle East, you would hardly know that we had a thing to do with them.  Oh yes, in the name of its War on Terror, Washington had for years backed most of the thuggish governments now under siege or anxious that they may be next in line to hear from their people.  When it came to Egypt in particular, there was initially much polite (and hypocritical) discussion in the media about how our"interests" and our"values" were in conflict, about how far the U.S. should back off its support for the Mubarak regime, and about what a “tightrope” the Obama administration was walking.  While the president and his officials flailed, the mildest of questions were raised about how much we should chide our erstwhile allies, or encourage the massed protestors, and about whether we should “take sides” (as though we hadn’t done so decisively over the last decades).

With popular cries for “democracy” and “freedom” sweeping through the Middle East, it’s curious to note that the Bush-era’s now-infamous “democracy agenda” has been nowhere in sight.  In its brief and disastrous life, it was used as a battering ram for regimes Washington loathed and offered as a soft pillow of future possibility to those it loved.

Still, make no mistake, there’s a story in a Washington stunned and "blindsided," in an administration visibly toothless and in disarray as well as dismayed over the potential loss of its Egyptian ally, “the keystone of its Middle Eastern policy,” that’s so big it should knock your socks off.  And make no mistake: part of the spectacle of the moment lies in watching that other great power of the Cold War era finally head ever so slowly and reluctantly for the exits.  You know the one I’m talking about.  In 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared and the United States found itself the last superpower standing, Washington mistook that for a victory most rare.  In the years that followed, in a paroxysm of self-satisfaction and amid clouds of self-congratulation, its leaders would attempt nothing less than to establish a global Pax Americana.  Their breathtaking ambitions would leave hubris in the shade.

The results, it's now clear, were no less breathtaking, even if disastrously so.  Almost 20 years after the lesser superpower of the Cold War left the world stage, the “victor” is now lurching down the declinist slope, this time as the other defeated power of the Cold War era.

So don’t mark the end of the Cold War in 1991 as our conventional histories do.  Mark it in the early days of 2011, and consider the events of this moment a symbolic goodbye-to-all-that for the planet’s “sole superpower.”

Abroads, Near and Far

The proximate cause of Washington’s defeat is a threatened collapse of its imperial position in a region that, ever since President Jimmy Carter proclaimed his Carter Doctrine in 1980, has been considered the crucible of global power, the place where, above all, the Great Game must be played out.  Today, “people power” is shaking the “pillars” of the American position in the Middle East, while -- despite the staggering levels of military might the Pentagon still has embedded in the area -- the Obama administration has found itself standing by helplessly in grim confusion.

As a spectacle of imperial power on the decline, we haven’t seen anything like it since 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.  Then, too, people power stunned the world.  It swept like lightning across the satellite states of Eastern Europe, those “pillars” of the old Soviet empire, most of which had (as in the Middle East today) seemed quiescent for years.

It was an invigorating time.  After all, such moments often don’t come once in a life, no less twice in 20 years.  If you don’t happen to be in Washington, the present moment is proving no less remarkable, unpredictable, and earthshaking than its predecessor.

Make no mistake, either (though you wouldn’t guess it from recent reportage): these two moments of people power are inextricably linked.  Think of it this way: as we witness the true denouement of the Cold War, it’s already clear that the"victor" in that titanic struggle, like the Soviet Union before it, mined its own positions and then was forced to watch with shock, awe, and dismay as those mines went off.

Among the most admirable aspects of the Soviet collapse was the decision of its remarkable leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, not to call the Red Army out of its barracks, as previous Soviet leaders had done in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Prague in 1968.  Gorbachev’s conscious (and courageous) choice to let the empire collapse rather than employ violence to try to halt the course of events remains historically little short of unique.

Today, after almost two decades of exuberant imperial impunity, Washington finds itself in an uncomfortably unraveling situation.  Think of it as a kind of slo-mo Gorbachev moment -- without a Gorbachev in sight.

What we’re dealing with here is, in a sense, the story of two “abroads.”  In 1990, in the wake of a disastrous war in Afghanistan, in the midst of a people’s revolt, the Russians lost what they came to call their “near abroad,” the lands from Eastern Europe to Central Asia that had made up the Soviet Empire.  The U.S., being the wealthier and stronger of the two Cold War superpowers, had something the Soviets never possessed.  Call it a “far abroad.”  Now, in the midst of another draining, disastrous Afghan war, in the face of another people’s revolt, a critical part of its far abroad is being shaken to its roots.

In the Middle East, the two pillars of American imperial power and control have long been Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- along, of course, with obdurate Israel and little Jordan.  In previous eras, the chosen bulwarks of “stability” and “moderation,” terms much favored in Washington, had been the Shah of Iran in the 1960s and 1970s (and you remember his fate), and Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (and you remember his fate, too).  In the larger region the Bush administration liked to call “the Greater Middle East” or “the arc of instability,” another key pillar has been Pakistan, a country now in destabilization mode under the pressure of a disastrous American war in Afghanistan.

And yet, without a Gorbachevian bone in its body, the Obama administration has still been hamstrung.  While negotiating madly behind the scenes to retain power and influence in Egypt, it is not likely to call the troops out of the barracks.  American military intervention remains essentially inconceivable.   Don’t wait for Washington to send paratroopers to the Suez Canal as those fading imperial powers France and England tried to do in 1956.  It won’t happen.  Washington is too drained by years of war and economic bad times for that.

Facing genuine shock and awe (the people’s version), the Obama administration has been shaken.  It has shown itself to be weak, visibly fearful, at a loss for what to do, and always several steps behind developing events.  Count on one thing: its officials are already undoubtedly worried about a domestic political future in which the question (never good for Democrats) could be: Who lost the Middle East?  In the meantime, their oh-so-solemn, carefully calibrated statements, still in command mode, couched in imperial-speak, and focused on what client states in the Middle East must do, might as well be spoken to the wind.  Like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, only the rhetoric of the last decades seems to be left.

The question is: How did this happen?  And the answer, in part, is: blame it on the way the Cold War officially ended, the mood of unparalleled hubris in which the United States emerged from it, and the unilaterialist path its leaders chose in its wake.

Let’s do a little reviewing.

Second-Wave Unilateralism

When the Soviet Union dissolved, Washington was stunned -- the collapse was unexpected despite all the signs that something monumental was afoot -- and then thrilled.  The Cold War was over and we had won.  Our mighty adversary had disappeared from the face of the Earth.

It didn’t take long for terms like “sole superpower” and “hyperpower” to crop up, or for dreams of a global Pax Americana to take shape amid talk about how our power and glory would outshine even the Roman and British empires.  The conclusion that victory -- as in World War II -- would have its benefits, that the world was now our oyster, led to two waves of American “unilateralism” or go-it-alone-ism that essentially drove the car of state directly toward the nearest cliff and helped prepare the way for the sudden eruption of people power in the Middle East.

The second of those waves began with the fateful post-9/11 decision of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and company to “drain the global swamp” (as they put it within days of the attacks in New York and Washington).  They would, that is, pursue al-Qaeda (and whomever else they decided to label an enemy) by full military means.  That included the invasion of Afghanistan and the issuing of a with-us-or-against-us diktat to Pakistan, which reportedly included the threat to bomb that country “back to the Stone Age.”  It also involved a full-scale militarization, Pentagonization, and privatization of American foreign policy, and above all else, the crushing of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the occupation of his country.  All that and more came to be associated with the term “unilateralism,” with the idea that U.S. military power was so overwhelming Washington could simply go it alone in the world with any “coalition of the billing” it might muster and still get exactly what it wanted.

That second wave of unilateralism, now largely relegated to the memory hole of history by the mainstream media, helped pave the way for the upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt, and possibly elsewhere.  As a start, from Pakistan to North Africa, the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, along with its support for thuggish rule in the name of fighting al-Qaeda, helped radicalize the region.  (Remember, for instance, that while Washington was pouring billions of dollars into the American-equipped Egyptian Army and the American-trained Egyptian officer corps, Bush administration officials were delighted to enlist the Mubarak regime as War on Terror warriors, using Egypt’s jails as places to torture terror suspects rendered off any streets anywhere.)

In the process, by sweeping an area from North Africa to the Chinese border that it dubbed the Greater Middle East into that War on Terror, the Bush administration undoubtedly gave the region a new-found sense of unity, a feeling that the fate of its disparate parts was somehow bound together.

In addition, Bush’s top officials, fundamentalists all when it came to U.S. military might and delusional fantasists when it came to what that military could accomplish, had immense power at its command: the power to destroy.  They gave that power the snappy label “shock and awe,” and then used it to blow a hole in the heart of the Middle East by invading Iraq.  In the process, they put that land, already on the ropes, onto life support.

It’s never really come off.  In the wars, civil and guerrilla, set off by the American invasion and occupation, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis undoubtedly died and millions were sent into exile abroad or in their own land.  Today, Iraq remains a barely breathing carcass of a nation, unable to deliver something as simple as electricity to its restive people or pump enough oil to pay for the disaster.

At the same time, the Bush administration sat on its hands while Israel had its way, taking Palestinian lands via its settlement policies and blowing its own hole in southern Lebanon with American backing (and weaponry) in the summer of 2006, and a smaller hole of utter devastation through Gaza in 2009.  In other words, from Lebanon to Pakistan, the Greater Middle East was destabilized and radicalized.

The acts of Bush’s officials couldn’t have been rasher, or more destructive.  They managed, for instance, to turn Afghanistan into the globe’s foremost narco-state, even as they gave new life to the Taliban -- no small miracle for a movement that, in 2001, had lost any vestige of popularity.  Most crucial of all, they and the Obama adminsitration after them spread the war irrevocably to populous, nuclear-armed Pakistan.

To their mad plans and projects, you can trace, at least in part, the rise to power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza (the only significant result of Bush’s “democracy agenda,” since Iraq’s elections arrived, despite Bush administration opposition, due tothe prestige of Ayatollah Ali Sistani).  You can credit them with an Iran-allied Shiite government in Iraq and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the growth of a version of the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.  You can also credit them with the disorganization and impoverishment of the region.  In summary, when the Bush unilateralists took control of the car of state, they souped it up, armed it to the teeth, and sent it careening off to catastrophe.

How hollow the neocon quip of 2003 now rings: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad.  Real men want to go to Tehran.”  But remember as well that, however much the Bush administration accomplished (in a manner of speaking), there was a wave of unilateralism, no less significant, that preceded it.

Our Financial Jihadis

Though we all know this first wave well, we don’t usually think of it as “unilateralist,” or in terms of the Middle East at all, or speak about it in the same breath with the Bush administration and its neocon supporters.  I’m talking about the globalists, sometimes called the neoliberals, who were let loose to do their damnedest in the good times of the post-Cold-War Clinton years.  They, too, were dreamy about organizing the planet and about another kind of American power that was never going to end: economic power.  (And, of course, they would be called back to power in Washington in the Obama years to run the U.S. economy into the ground yet again.)  They believed deeply that we were the economic superpower of the ages, and they were eager to create their own version of a Pax Americana.  Intent on homogenizing the world by bringing American economic power to bear on it, their version of shock-and-awe tactics involved calling in institutions like the International Monetary Fund to discipline developing countries into a profitable kind of poverty and misery.

In the end, as they gleefully sliced and diced subprime mortgages, they drove a different kind of hole through the world.  They were financial jihadis with their own style of shock-and-awe tactics and they, too, proved deeply destructive, even if in a different way.  The irony was that, in the economic meltdown of 2008, they finally took down the global economy they had helped “unify.”  And that occured just as the second wave of unilateralists were facing the endgame of their dreams of global domination.  In the process, for instance, Egypt, the most populous of Arab countries, was economically neoliberalized and -- except for a small elite who made out like the bandits they were -- impoverished.

Talk about “creative destruction”!  The two waves of American unilateralists nearly took down the planet.  They let loose demons of every sort, even as they ensured that the world’s first experience of a sole superpower would prove short indeed.  Heap onto the rubble they left behind the global disaster of rising prices for the basics -- food and fuel -- and you have a situation so combustible that no one should have been surprised when a Tunisian match lit it aflame.

That this moment began in the Greater Middle East should be no surprise either.  That it might not end there should not be ruled out.  This looks like, but may not be, an “Islamic” moment.  If the second wave of American unilateralists ensured that this would start as a Middle Eastern phenomenon, conditions for people's-power movements exist elsewhere as well.

The Gates of Hell

Nobody today remembers how, in September 2004, Amr Musa, the head of the Arab League, described the post-invasion Iraqi situation.  “The gates of hell,” he said, “are open in Iraq.”  This was not the sort of language we were used to hearing in the U.S., no matter what you felt about the war.  It read -- and probably still reads -- like an over-the-top metaphor, but it could as easily be taken as a realistic depiction of what happened not just in Iraq, but in the Greater Middle East and, to some extent, in the world.

Our unilateralists twice drove blithely through those gates, imagining that they were the gates to paradise.  The results are now clear for all to see.

And don't forget, the gates of hell remain open.  Keep your eyes on at least two places, starting with Saudi Arabia, about which practically no one is yet writing, though one of these days its situation could turn out to be shakier than now imagined.  Certainly, whoever controls the Saudi stock market thought so, because as the situation grew more tumultuous in Egypt, Saudi stocks took a nosedive.  With Saudi Arabia, you couldn’t get more basic when it comes to U.S. policy or the fate of the planet, given the amount of oil still under its desert sands.  And then don’t forget the potentially most frightening country of all, Pakistan, where the final gasp of America’s military unilateralists is still playing itself out as if on a reel of film that just won’t end.

Yes, the Obama administration may squeeze by in the region for a while.  Perhaps the Egyptian high command -- half of which seems to have been in Washington at the moment the you-know-what hit the fan in their own country -- will take over and perhaps they will suppress people power again for a period. Who knows?

One thing is clear inside the gates of hell: whatever wild flowers or weeds turn out to be capable of growing in the soil tilled so assiduously by the victors of 1991, Pax Americana proved to be a Pox Americana for the region and the world.

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omar ibrahim baker - 3/21/2011

Instead of what could have been a true alliance with a great deal of vested interests of both parties , the Arabs and the USA, the USA chose the wrong venue that has led to the present situation.

The real question that I always ponder is :how much of that choice was made considering real American interests and how much did others, with different interests, influence it in what trurned out to be the wrong direction?

In essence, I claim, this is an INTERNAL American problem that the USA better face and consider seriously before worst things issue therfrom.


Arnold Shcherban - 2/13/2011

You're right, Mr. Costello: there were no Soviet military barracks in Czechoslovakia before the spring of 1968, though that's a minor point in regard of the issues discussed in the author's article.
However, this minor point can be, and I think, should be elaborated upon in the sense of comparing Soviet, post-Stalin's, global strategy and American one.
Unfortunately, as far I'm aware of, such a comparison, based on extensive
research of a great amount of US and Russian declassified documents, has never been done in a scientific, unbiased manner. Current traditional Western view on this (we were right, since we represented democracy, they were wrong since they represented totalitarian regime) is not only over-simplistic but is taken as a premise, instead of being the end-result of solid analysis.


Michael Costello - 2/9/2011

Good to read such a clear overall exposition. Interesing idea about the Cold War not ending in 2001, although it smacks of conflating the conflict between the socialist (however interpreted)and capitalist camps into, at least since 2001, the good old battles to strengthen empires and subjugate other peoples.

A small quibble - I believe there were no Soviet barracks in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and that they were placed there only after the invasion by several members of the Warsaw Pact that crushed the Prague Spring. Soviet troops were stationed after WWII only in Germany (east) and countries deemed necessary to be on the route from the USSR to Germany to deal with any possible new German aggression; thus excluding Czechoslovakia, Albania, Yugoslavia, Rumania and Bulgaria.

Michael Costello

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