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General News    H3'ed 2/7/11

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Goodbye to All That

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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 to the 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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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