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Empire on the Rocks: Washington's Autocrats, Aristocrats and Thugs Are Falling

How the revolutions spreading across the Middle East may well mark the beginning of the end for American global power.

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Similarly, in late 2008 the American Embassy in Cairo feared that “Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts... are being suffocated.” However, as the embassy admitted, “we would not like to contemplate complications for U.S. regional interests should the U.S.-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened.” When Mubarak visited Washington a few months later, the Embassy urged the White House “to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the U.S.-Egyptian partnership.” And so in June 2009, just 18 months before the Egyptian president’s downfall, President Obama hailed this useful dictator as “a stalwart ally... a force for stability and good in the region."

As the crisis in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded, respected opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei complained bitterly that Washington was pushing “the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.” After 40 years of U.S. dominion, the Middle East was, he said, “a collection of failed states that add nothing to humanity or science” because “people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education.”

Absent a global war capable of simply sweeping away an empire, the decline of a great power is often a fitful, painful, drawn-out affair. In addition to the two American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down to something not so far short of defeat, the nation’s capital is now writhing in fiscal crisis, the coin of the realm is losing its creditworthiness, and longtime allies are forging economic and even military ties to rival China. To all of this, we must now add the possible loss of loyal surrogates across the Middle East.

For more than 50 years, Washington has been served well by a system of global power based on subordinate elites. That system once facilitated the extension of American influence worldwide with a surprising efficiency and (relatively speaking) an economy of force. Now, however, those loyal allies increasingly look like an empire of failed or insubordinate states. Make no mistake: the degradation of, or ending of, half a century of such ties is likely to leave Washington on the rocks.

 

Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a TomDispatch regular , and author most recently of the award-winning book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State . He has also convened the “Empires in Transition” project , a global working group of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results of their first meetings were published as Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State , and the findings from their latest conference, at Barcelona last June, will appear next year as Endless Empires: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, and America’s Decline . To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses why Washington is likely to cling disastrously to empire in the midst of decline, click  here, or download it to your iPod  here.

Brett Reilly is a graduate student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying U.S. foreign policy in Asia.

 
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