Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 April 2008
Issue No. 892
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The rise and fall of American empire

Most American analysts now are wondering how to save what is left of the shredded credibility of the United States, writes Ahmad Naguib Roushdy*

The American empire is in danger and needs rescuing. That is the consensus among strategists, columnists and book authors in the United States and in the West. How is it that the United States, which ascended as an empire and pre-eminent global power after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the shattering of the Soviet Union in 1991, is losing the respect of its European allies and gaining the resentment of many countries, including those of the Middle East?

During the Cold War, the United States never fought the Soviet Union -- it would have been a deadly war. Instead, the US conducted a policy of deterrence with its adversary: both were engaged in an ideological contest, or "chess game", as Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Carter's former national security adviser, likes to call it. To the United States, the Soviet Union was a godless and authoritarian country that should burn in hell. The Soviet Union considered the US a capitalist class dictatorship that was exploiting the working people. Christian principles dominated American culture from its early beginning. President Ronald Reagan polarised that religious distinction when he described the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire".

Some writers argue that the United States acted as an empire from the first. But the notion of empire as an ideological slogan was most actively promoted by the American neo-conservatives who adopted Ronald Reagan's ideology about Armageddon and good defeating evil. With a prophetic cast of mind, the neo- cons' ethos was (and remains) that America has a mission to spread its democracy and culture everywhere, particularly in the Arab world (where the oil is), and by force or coup if necessary. In the name of freedom and democracy America has used military force against many countries, most of them small and weak, committing atrocities, killing unarmed civilians, including women and children, and destroying their homes, as happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in Korea, in the saturation bombing of North Vietnamese cities, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq.

Ironically, American presidents did nothing to prevent Hitler from crashing into Poland and the Soviet Union's bloody invasion of Hungary, or to stop the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Albanians in Kosovo (Bill Clinton's persuasion of NATO to interfere was much too late, as historian and writer Michael Ignatieff observed in his lengthy article, "Why we are in Iraq, Liberia and Afghanistan," published in The New York Times Magazine, 7 September 2003). The United States became the policeman of the world, but not a good one. Strategists and writers, some conservatives among them, now declare that those actions and lack of were not done in the interest of the United States, or according to the rule of law. Worse was to follow. The slogan of "democracy and freedom" shaped the neo-conservatives' agenda, most evangelical Christians, with a few being Jews, and described by some as more loyal to Israel than to America -- obvious from their resistance to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The religious education of President George W Bush as an evangelical Christian drove his rigid and unlettered mind to believe that his decisions originated from divine revelation. Comparing himself to Reagan, Bush II plagiarised him by scorning North Korea, Iraq and Iran as the "Axis of Evil", associating an allegedly unfaithful and godless communist country with two of the largest Muslim countries in the Middle East, a region he and the neo-cons, and likely most of the American people and its policymakers, knew little about. It was the neo-cons' belief, which Bush II adopted, though he pretended otherwise, that Islam was America's number one enemy. Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg say in their 2008 book Islamophobia: Making Muslim Countries the Enemy, that Bush II "suggested that Islam was replacing communism as the ideology of perennial conflict in America's foreign affairs and of a perpetual fear in domestic life".

Since, Islam in the minds of many Americans became synonymous with violent Muslim men and oppressed Muslim women, the security of Middle East oil, vital to the continuing welfare of America and the West, caught in the crossfire. Enmity towards Islam, many Western writers agree, goes back to the Crusades and became part of the Christian European heritage. The OPEC oil embargo during the 1973 War between Egypt and Israel, that increased the price of oil to unprecedented levels, shocked American industry and America's lifestyle, culture and freedom, all which became dependent on cheap oil. The ground already laid was simply reseeded, culminating in what in recent years we have witnessed.

Five years ago, exactly on 19 March 2003, Bush II fulfilled his promise to the neo-cons by pre-emptively invading Iraq without provocation or any imminent attack by Saddam Hussein. A few weeks after the invasion by air and ground forces, the American army entered Baghdad meeting no apparent resistance by the Iraqi army, as reported at the time. That army did not surrender, but rather disappeared; from soldier to general ranks, all went back to their homes. After it was proven that claims by the Bush administration of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and links existing between Saddam and Al-Qaeda were false, Bush II changed tone and claimed that he invaded Iraq to liberate it from Saddam and to establish democracy there and in the Middle East. The fact is that oil and the security of Israel, and not weapons of mass destruction or liberating Iraq, were the real reasons for which Bush II and his neo-con backers invaded Iraq.

Unfortunately for Bush, the war in Iraq has not been a cakewalk, as he and his neo-con backers had led the American people to believe it would be. In April 2003, after Baghdad was secured, chaos spread in the capital and looters stole the treasures and most valuable ancient artefacts of Iraq's national museum while American soldiers nearby closed their eyes or looked the other way. American mismanagement of the war has caused a civil war between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, allowed the plundering of Iraqi treasures and the destruction of Iraqi property, provoked Iraqi insurgents, and favoured American companies in oil deals and reconstruction. The war is still going on in Afghanistan after resurgence by the Taliban who operate out of Pakistan, America's authoritarian ally. In Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians have been killed by American troops, human rights violated by the American occupying armies, and Afghanis, Iraqis and other Arabs, detained indefinitely at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons, tortured, abused and denied due process of law (see 'The echoes of justice', Al-Ahram Weekly, 17-23 February 2005). After 11 September 2001, there were calls in the United States to detain Arab Americans in concentration camps as happened with Japanese Americans during World War II.

Many writers now consider the war in Iraq part of the programme of "fundamental capitalism" applied and polarised by Ronald Reagan and George W Bush: supply side economic policies of cutting taxes, mostly for the rich and big corporations, and freeing the financial market from regulatory requirements, causing the rich to become richer and the poor to become poorer, and causing the crash of the stock market in 1987 and 2001 along with economic crises in America and the industrialised world. America, in reality, is dependent on foreign debt to finance itself. Robert Kuttner, a newspaper columnist and commentator, in his 2007 book The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity, explains the above situation. Kuttner notes that the devaluation of the dollar, which reached a humiliating low during the Bush II administration until now, and the deterioration of moral values in the economic sphere are causing havoc. The war in Iraq, Kuttner says, resulted in the destruction of democracy and the rule of law. Although there are several factors that caused the deterioration of US status in the world, most analysts agree that the war on Iraq was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Frances Fukuyama argued in his widely read book The End of History and the Last Man that the disintegration of the Soviet Union marked the end of all ideological evolution and that the reshaping of governments along the lines of Western democracy (he meant American democracy) was inevitable. Democratic capitalism had prevailed, he declared, the world ready to embrace its destiny. Fukuyama was among the devoted neo-cons who called upon President Bill Clinton to invade Iraq and complete the job Bush I left undone, but Clinton declined and continued his policy of containment of Iraq. After 11 September, Fukuyama vehemently supported Bush II's invasion of Iraq. When it appeared later that the invasion was staged on false pretences and that the American occupation of Iraq was mismanaged, Fukuyama, in his 2007 book America at Crossroads, disavowed the neo-con current and called for a return to realism in American foreign policy.

Many leading strategists and columnists who were opponents of the invasion of Iraq consider that the war, along with the state of the economy, Bush II's controversial social policy and refusal to respect America's international obligations, has tarnished America's status as a global power, brought European resentment down upon the United States, and destabilised the Middle East now dominated by a wave of anti-Americanism. Although many American presidents contributed to the deterioration of America's status, many call Bush II's presidency the most disastrous in America's history. Bush II will be leaving the White House by year's end after breaking his promises to the American people and blundering to historic proportions. It is a fact that the country is fighting three wars: one in Iraq, the second against the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and the third in the economy. The war on Iraq has depleted the US budget, divided America like no other war and with no prospective end, and alienated old friends while creating new enemies. Bush II has thus abdicated his responsibilities.

Now, in order to restore America's status, most writers in the US are calling for peace negotiations as the only alternative to war. Brzezinski in his latest book of 2007, A Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Power, blames the last three presidents, Bush I, Bill Clinton and in particular Bush II, for the squandering of America's global power either by making wrong decisions or by declining to act when necessary. He proposes a change of approach in America's foreign relations with Europe, Russia, China, India (the last two are emerging as new superpowers) and Latin America. He urges the next president to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear experiments and to press the Israelis to conclude a peace treaty with the Palestinians to end their conflict, which he considers the biggest reason for anti-American resentment in the Middle East. The author, along with others, considers that Bush II's invasion of Iraq and mismanagement of the occupation has escalated the fall of the empire, become a cemetery for the neo-conservative movement, and ended the US bid for hegemony. British historian Niall Ferguson, in his 2004 article in Foreign Affairs entitled "A world without power", says a world without hegemony may be preferable to US primacy.

This is the line that some conservative Republicans and many Democrats are now promoting. Patrick Buchanan, a leading Christian conservative Republican who opposed the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 believes that the present war in Iraq, the nuclear standoff with Iran and the status of the American economy show that it is not in the interests of the United States to reform the world. In his latest 2007 book, Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology and Greed are Tearing America Apart, he advocates a return to the policies of deterrence and containment. He portentously insists that the United States should disengage from international military commitments such as NATO, and from trade agreements; abandon its commitments to Taiwan and South Korea, and withdraw from Iraq. He further suggests negotiating with Iran instead of threatening it. But he does not exclude the use of military force against terrorists who act in groups. America, however, should go to war only if there is an imminent danger or actual attack against it. Buchanan is against unprovoked pre-emptive wars. That is why he, after 11 September, endorsed attacking Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that harboured it in Afghanistan and opposed the invasion of Iraq because Saddam did not attack the US. Not in generations, Buchanan among others believes, has conservatism been in as much trouble as it is now.

Along the same lines, Madeline Albright, Clinton's former secretary of state, writes in her 2008 book, A Memo to the Next President, that diplomacy is the best means to solve world problems. She advocates the need for a new foreign policy based on negotiations, as well as cooperation with and respect for the sovereignty of all states.

The real challenge now is how the next president plans to clean up the mess left by Bush II. It will not be easy. Most important, the US should deal with the world not as an empire or a blackmailer, through foreign aid and military superiority, but as a superpower that respects its obligations and cooperates with other prospective superpowers and the rest of the world. America is paying the price of its wilful amnesia. The notion of empire became a matter of history. Ancient and old empires disappeared when decadence prevailed, and this is what America is facing now. The real danger is whether the neo-conservatives will succeed in taking over the country again. If that happens, then the demolition of the Berlin Wall would have been a waste.

* The writer is an international lawyer.

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