Pox Americana—How the U.S. Opened the Mideast’s Gates of Hell

Pox Americana—How the U.S. Opened the Mideast’s Gates of Hell

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As the world has watched the drama of the Middle East, Americans would hardly know that the United States had a thing to do with those events.

For its War on Terror, of course, Washington has long backed most of the thuggish governments now under siege (or anxious that they may be next). In September 2004, Amr Musa, who headed the Arab League, described the post-invasion Iraqi situation: “The gates of hell are open in Iraq.”

This was not the sort of language we were used to hearing in the U.S., no matter what someone felt about the war. It read like an over-the-top metaphor, but it could as easily be taken as a realistic depiction of what happened. America’s go-it-alone strategy drove blithely through those gates, its stars and stripes waving, as if they were the gates to paradise.

And our policymakers are obliviously careening along once again. Today’s situation in Egypt initially elicited much polite (and hypocritical) media discussion about how American interests and values were in conflict, about how far the United States should back off its support for Mubarak, and about the “tightrope” the Obama administration was walking.

While the President and his officials flailed, questions loomed 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 infamous “democracy agenda” has been nowhere in sight.

Still, make no mistake, there’s a story in a Washington stunned and blindsided, in an administration visibly toothless and dismayed over the potential loss of its Egyptian ally --- “the keystone of its Middle Eastern policy.”

People Power – 1991, 2011

Shadowing today’s spectacle is the slow and reluctant march for the exits of that other great power of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, and the United States found itself the last superpower standing, Washington mistook that for a victory most rare.

In the years that followed, amid clouds of self-congratulation, U.S. leaders would attempt nothing less than to establish a global Pax Americana, another era of an American-imposed Peaceable Kingdom. Their breathtaking ambitions would leave hubris in the shade. Two decades after the Soviet Union left the world stage, the “victor” is now lurching down the declining slope, this time as the other defeated superpower of the Cold War.

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 for the planet’s so-called sole superpower.

Make no mistake, either: These two moments of people power are inextricably linked.

In the Middle East, the two pillars of American imperial power and control have long been Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- along with obdurate Israel and little Jordan. 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.

Now facing the people’s version of shock and awe, 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: Administration officials are 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 commanding tones and focused on what client states in the Middle East must do, might as well be spoken to the wind.

The question is: How did this happen? 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 of American individualism its leaders chose in its wake.

Second-Wave of Going It Alone

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

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 former Roman and British empires. By concluding that this victory made the world our oyster, the United States brought on two waves of unilateral go-it-alone-ism that essentially drove our position and interests 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. They pursued al-Qaeda, by invading Afghanistan. And they issued a with-us-or-against-us diktat to Pakistan, which reportedly included the threat to bomb that country “back to the Stone Age.” Beside full-scale militarization and privatization of American foreign policy, they crushed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and occupied the country.

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. For instance, that Bush administration officials enlisted the Mubarak regime anti-terrorist warriors, using Egypt’s jails as places to torture suspects “rendered” off any streets anywhere.

By sweeping an area from North Africa to the Chinese border that it dubbed the Greater Middle East into the War on Terror, the Bush administration likely gave the region a newfound sense that the fate of its disparate parts was somehow bound together.

In addition, Bush’s top officials gave their power the snappy label “shock and awe.” 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.

At the same time, the Bush administration sat on its hands while Israel had its way, taking Palestinian lands via its settlements, blowing its own hole in southern Lebanon with American backing in 2006, and a smaller but devastating hole in Gaza in 2009. From Lebanon to Pakistan, the Greater Middle East was destabilized and radicalized.

The Bush administration couldn’t have been rasher or more destructive. Their mad plans resulted, at least in part, in the rise to power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza -- the only significant result of Bush’s “democracy agenda.”

Credit them with an Iran-allied Shiite government in Iraq and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the growth of a Taliban version in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands. Credit them with the disorganization and impoverishment of the region.

Our Financial Jihadis

Most Americans don’t think of our post-911 policies as “unilateralist” -- or in terms of the Middle East at all. Nor do they speak about it in the same breath with the Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters.

I’m talking about the globalists, sometimes also 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. (Of course, they’ve been called back to power in Washington in the Obama years to run the U.S. economy into the ground yet again.)

These are the same people, who gleefully sliced and diced subprime mortgages, driving a different kind of hole through the world. They were financial jihadis with their own style of shock-and-awe tactics.

Ironically, in the economic meltdown of 2008, they finally took down the global economy they had helped “unify.” 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 bandits -- they were impoverished.

American unilateralists 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 on to 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 the whole region aflame.

Although this historical moment began in the Greater Middle East, no one should be surprised if it doesn’t end there. The current situation looks like, but may not be, an “Islamic” moment. American unilateralists ensured that this would start as a Middle Eastern phenomenon, but conditions for people's-power movements also exist elsewhere.

As you look through those gates of hell, keep your eyes on at least two places, starting with Saudi Arabia. For one thing, as the situation grew more tumultuous in Egypt, Saudi stocks took a nosedive. Saudi Arabia and the vast oil under its desert sands couldn’t be more basic in terms of U.S. policy or the fate of the planet.

Also, don’t forget the potentially most frightening country of all, Pakistan. Yes, the Obama administration may squeeze by in the region for now. Perhaps the Egyptian high command -- half of which seems to have been in Washington when the camel dung hit their country’s fan -- will take over. Who knows if they will suppress people power again for a period?

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.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com, where a longer version of this article appeared. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books). Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt


SIDEBAR: Behind U.S. Helplessness in the Middle East


One can trace Washington’s current consternation and the apparent defeat of its policies to its response to the threatened collapse of its Middle Eastern position to 1980.

It was the presidential election year of the Iranian Revolution and American hostage crisis. President Jimmy Carter proclaimed his Carter Doctrine that January, stating that the United States would use force if necessary to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf. Since then the region has been regarded as the place where the Great Game of global power must be played out.

Today, people power is shaking the pillars of the U.S. position in the Middle East. Despite the staggering levels of Pentagon might there, the Obama administration has found itself standing by in helpless and grim confusion.

As a spectacle of imperial power in decline, the United States hasn’t seen anything like this 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. Most of those pillars of the old Soviet empire had -- as in the Middle East today -- seemed quiescent for years. Much as now, it was an invigorating time.

Among the most admirable aspects of the Soviet collapse was the decision of its remarkable leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, not to call in the Red Army, as previous Soviet leaders had done in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Prague in 1968. Gorbachev’s 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, but without a Gorbachev in sight.

The United States may well be revisiting the Soviet Union’s 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 United States, being the wealthier and stronger of the two Cold War superpowers, had something the Soviets never possessed -- the “far abroad” of distant regions.

Now, in the midst of another draining, disastrous Afghan war, in the face of another people’s revolt, a critical part of America’s far abroad is being shaken to its roots.

--Tom Engelhardt