Monday, October 15, 2012

The Limits of American Power

Will our people and politicians ever get over the later 20th century?  

You know, that era when "we" KO'd the Germans and Japanese to win World War II, then TKO'd the Soviets to win the Cold War, then circled the ring with a victory lap by waxing Saddam's Iraq in the Persian Gulf "Desert Storm" war?  When so may Americans became convinced that the "USA USA" was THE eternal, divinely ordained hyperpower that had brought the planet (to use Francis Fukuyama's expression) "the end of history" with the permanent and indelible victory of democracy and capitalism?

If the debacle of the Bush-and-Obama Afghan and Iraq adventures has reminded us anything, it's that history indeed moves on, that all empires have their inevitable rise and fall - and nowhere more so than in the Middle East and Asia.  The reasons have varied.  The Assyrians fell victim to the resurgence of once subjugated, resentful Babylonians and Iranians.  Alexander's was brought down by internal fragmentation and the rise of new powers east and west.  Roman/Byzantine, Arab, Seljuk, Ottoman . . . they waxed, sometimes for centuries; they dominated; they faded and they fell. When modern European nations stepped in - none with a bigger, heavier footprint than Great Britain . . . same story.  In the case of the British empire, the historian Paul Kennedy argued convincingly (in his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers)  that its demise was the result of imperial overstretch, as the size of British dominion came to exceed the ability of the imperial economy to sustain it.  The US seems to have reached the limits of its dominion much more abruptly, for sure.  In 1991 the US military seemed able to work its will wherever it might choose to in the Middle East; and a few years later, the booming US economy produced a surplus in the federal coffers.  Imperial apogee.

Perhaps we owe George W. Bush a big thank-you after all.  Yes, by 2008 his ill-fated (to describe them kindly) ventures in the East helped to run the national economy aground and imposed unsustainable burdens upon a military that had been counted as invincible only a few years before.  But in the abruptness of the process, Mr. Bush equally abruptly forced upon the nation a realization that, under other circumstances, might have dawned much more slowly and, ultimately, have caused the American people, and the planet, much more pain.

That realization? The American empire, such as it was, was an unsustainable chimera that could never have lasted.  Whatever the US's military and economic might, it would (as in the case of all of history's empires) never be sufficient to sustain a permanent domination.  And more importantly, especially given the "values" upon which Americans have predicated so much of their national pride, the right of Middle Eastern peoples to self-determination, whatever form that self-determination might take, was bound to assert itself.

That is indeed what has been going on across the region, especially over the last couple of years of "Arab Spring," but just as surely with the post-World War II decolonization (of which the Palestinian struggle with Israel is a part) and even (yes . . . the horror, the horror) the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution. 

Unfortunately, as some of the rhetoric of the current election season reveals, too many American pols and pundits still don't get it.  When Paul Ryan can speak (as he did last Thursday's vice-presidential debate) of the need to preserve "our gains" in Iraq and Afghanistan; when the WaPo's Jackson Diehl can hammer Obama for "bungling" Syria's civil war (as if that conflict was somehow America's to manage and control so that it would serve "our" interests); when pundits galore can anguish and point fingers over who "lost" Egypt, or Iraq, or Turkey; and when Mitt Romney signs up neocon "thinkers" like Dan Senor and John Bolton as campaign advisors  . . . all of them stand in the way of this nation's coming to terms with a reality that, like it or not, history was always moving it inexorably towards.

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