All-American Decline in a New World
Wars, Vampires, Burned Children, and Indelicate Imbalances
By Tom Engelhardt
This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history. Yes, comparisons can be made to the wave of people power that swept Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91. For those with longer memories, perhaps 1968 might come to mind, that abortive moment when, in the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere, including Eastern Europe, masses of people mysteriously inspired by each other took to the streets of global cities to proclaim that change was on the way.
For those searching the history books, perhaps you've focused on the year 1848 when, in a time that also mixed economic gloom with novel means of disseminating the news, the winds of freedom seemed briefly to sweep across Europe. And, of course, if enough regimes fall and the turmoil goes deep enough, there's always 1776, the American Revolution, or 1789, the French one, to consider. Both shook up the world for decades after.
But here's the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern moment into any previous paradigm, even as -- from Wisconsin to China -- it already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous -- or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth) -- in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.
Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone's spine.
The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable. Are freedom and democracy about to break out all over? And if so, what will that turn out to mean? If not, what exactly are we seeing? What light bulb was it that so unexpectedly turned on in millions of Twittered and Facebooked brains -- and why now? I doubt those who are protesting, and in some cases dying, know themselves. And that's good news. That the future remains -- always -- the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that's the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.
Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what's really possible on this planet of ours?
Seeing such scenes repeatedly, who wouldn't rethink the basics? Who wouldn't feel the urge to reimagine our world?
Let me offer as my nominee of choice not various desperate or dying Middle Eastern regimes, but Washington.
Life in the Echo Chamber
So much of what Washington did imagine in these last years proved laughable, even before this moment swept it away. Just take any old phrase from the Bush years. How about "You're either with us or against us"? What's striking is how little it means today. Looking back on Washington's desperately mistaken assumptions about how our globe works, this might seem like the perfect moment to show some humility in the face of what nobody could have predicted.
It would seem like a good moment for Washington -- which, since September 12, 2001, has been remarkably clueless about real developments on this planet and repeatedly miscalculated the nature of global power -- to step back and recalibrate.
As it happens, there's no evidence it's doing so. In fact, that may be beyond Washington's present capabilities, no matter how many billions of dollars it pours into "intelligence." And by "Washington," I mean not just the Obama administration, or the Pentagon, or our military commanders, or the vast intelligence bureaucracy, but all those pundits and think-tankers who swarm the capital, and the media that reports on them all. It's as if the cast of characters that makes up "Washington" now lives in some kind of echo chamber in which it can only hear itself talking.
As a result, Washington still seems remarkably determined to play out the string on an era that is all too swiftly passing into the history books. While many have noticed the Obama administration's hapless struggle to catch up to events in the Middle East, even as it clings to a familiar coterie of grim autocrats and oil sheiks, let me illustrate this point in another area entirely -- the largely forgotten war in Afghanistan. After all, hardly noticed, buried beneath 24/7 news from Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that war continues on its destructive, costly course with nary a blink.
Five Ways to Be Tone Deaf in Washington
You might think that, as vast swathes of the Greater Middle East are set ablaze, someone in Washington would take a new look at our Af/Pak War and wonder whether it isn't simply beside the point. No such luck, as the following five tiny but telling examples that caught my attention indicate. Consider them proof of the well-being of the American echo chamber and evidence of the way Washington is proving incapable of rethinking its longest, most futile, and most bizarre war.