As we've watched the dramatic events in the Middle East, you would hardly know that we had a thing to do with them. Oh yes, in the name of its War on Terror, Washington had for years backed most of the thuggish governments now under siege or anxious that they may be next in line to hear from their people. When it came to Egypt in particular, there was initially much polite (and hypocritical) discussion in the media about how our "interests" and our "values" were in conflict, about how far the U.S. should back off its support for the Mubarak regime, and about what a "tightrope" the Obama administration was walking. While the president and his officials flailed, the mildest of questions were raised about how much we should chide our erstwhile allies, or encourage the massed protestors, and 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 now-infamous "democracy agenda" has been nowhere in sight. In its brief and disastrous life, it was used as a battering ram for regimes Washington loathed and offered as a soft pillow of future possibility to those it loved.
Still, make no mistake, there's a story in a Washington stunned and "blindsided," in an administration visibly toothless and in disarray as well as dismayed over the potential loss of its Egyptian ally, "the keystone of its Middle Eastern policy," that's so big it should knock your socks off. And make no mistake: part of the spectacle of the moment lies in watching that other great power of the Cold War era finally head ever so slowly and reluctantly for the exits. You know the one I'm talking about. In 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared and the United States found itself the last superpower standing, Washington mistook that for a victory most rare. In the years that followed, in a paroxysm of self-satisfaction and amid clouds of self-congratulation, its leaders would attempt nothing less than to establish a global Pax Americana. Their breathtaking ambitions would leave hubris in the shade.
The results, it's now clear, were no less breathtaking, even if disastrously so. Almost 20 years after the lesser superpower of the Cold War left the world stage, the "victor" is now lurching down the declinist slope, this time as the other defeated power of the Cold War era.
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-to-all-that for the planet's "sole superpower."
Abroads, Near and Far
The proximate cause of Washington's defeat is a threatened collapse of its imperial position in a region that, ever since President Jimmy Carter proclaimed his Carter Doctrine in 1980, has been considered the crucible of global power, the place where, above all, the Great Game must be played out. Today, "people power" is shaking the "pillars" of the American position in the Middle East, while -- despite the staggering levels of military might the Pentagon still has embedded in the area -- the Obama administration has found itself standing by helplessly in grim confusion.
As a spectacle of imperial power on the decline, we haven't seen anything like it 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, those "pillars" of the old Soviet empire, most of which had (as in the Middle East today) seemed quiescent for years.
It was an invigorating time. After all, such moments often don't come once in a life, no less twice in 20 years. If you don't happen to be in Washington, the present moment is proving no less remarkable, unpredictable, and earthshaking than its predecessor.
Make no mistake, either (though you wouldn't guess it from recent reportage): these two moments of people power are inextricably linked. Think of it this way: as we witness the true denouement of the Cold War, it's already clear that the "victor" in that titanic struggle, like the Soviet Union before it, mined its own positions and then was forced to watch with shock, awe, and dismay as those mines went off.
Among the most admirable aspects of the Soviet collapse was the decision of its remarkable leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, not to call the Red Army out of its barracks, as previous Soviet leaders had done in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Prague in 1968. Gorbachev's conscious (and 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. Think of it as a kind of slo-mo Gorbachev moment -- without a Gorbachev in sight.
What we're dealing with here is, in a sense, the 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 U.S., being the wealthier and stronger of the two Cold War superpowers, had something the Soviets never possessed. Call it a "far abroad." Now, in the midst of another draining, disastrous Afghan war, in the face of another people's revolt, a critical part of its far abroad is being shaken to its roots.
In the Middle East, the two pillars of American imperial power and control have long been Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- along, of course, with obdurate Israel and little Jordan. In previous eras, the chosen bulwarks of "stability" and "moderation," terms much favored in Washington, had been the Shah of Iran in the 1960s and 1970s (and you remember his fate), and Saddam Hussein in the 1980s (and you remember his fate, too). 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.
And yet, without a Gorbachevian bone in its body, the Obama administration has still been hamstrung. While negotiating madly behind the scenes to retain power and influence in Egypt, it is not likely to call the troops out of the barracks. American military intervention remains essentially inconceivable. Don't wait for Washington to send paratroopers to the Suez Canal as those fading imperial powers France and England tried to do in 1956. It won't happen. Washington is too drained by years of war and economic bad times for that.