This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com.
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 United States 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 protesters, 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 twenty 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.