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.
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). You can catch him discussing war American-style and that book in a Timothy MacBain TomCast video by clicking here.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Paul Woodward of the War in Context website has been offering remarkable ongoing coverage of the fast developing story in Egypt and the Middle East (including striking visuals and video clips). Not surprisingly, the updates and analysis of Juan Cole at his Informed Comment blog has been invaluable, as has been the collecting of relevant reporting at Antiwar.com. For three provocative pieces on the Obama administration and developing events, you might check out Jonathan Schell on the U.S. government versus people power, Gareth Porter on why the U.S. clings to an illusory quest for dominance in the Middle East, and Eric Margolis on America's crumbling Mideast Raj.]
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt