February 2011, Week 2


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The Gates of Hell in the Greater Middle East

By Tom Engelhardt
Posted February 7, 2011, Printed February 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Our Financial Jihadis

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 --

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

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt
c 2011 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.


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