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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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In one of history’s lucky accidents, the juxtaposition of two extraordinary events has stripped the architecture of American global power bare for all to see. Last November, WikiLeaks splashed snippets from U.S. embassy cables, loaded with scurrilous comments about national leaders from Argentina to Zimbabwe, on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Then just a few weeks later, the Middle East erupted in pro-democracy protests against the region’s autocratic leaders, many of whom were close U.S. allies whose foibles had been so conveniently detailed in those same diplomatic cables.

Suddenly, it was possible to see the foundations of a U.S. world order that rested significantly on national leaders who serve Washington as loyal “subordinate elites”  and who are, in reality, a motley collection of autocrats, aristocrats, and uniformed thugs. Visible as well was the larger logic of otherwise inexplicable U.S. foreign policy choices over the past half-century.

Why would the CIA risk controversy in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, by overthrowing an accepted leader like Sukarno in Indonesia or encouraging the assassination of the Catholic autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963? The answer -- and thanks to WikiLeaks and the “Arab spring,” this is now so much clearer -- is that both were Washington’s chosen subordinates until each became insubordinate and expendable.

Why, half a century later, would Washington betray its stated democratic principles by backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against millions of demonstrators and then, when he faltered, use its leverage to replace him, at least initially with his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a man best known for running Cairo’s torture chambers (and lending them out to Washington)? The answer again: because both were reliable subordinates who had long served Washington’s interests well in this key Arab state.

Across the Greater Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, democratic protests are threatening to sweep away subordinate elites crucial to the wielding of American power. Of course, all modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control -- and for most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and set their own agendas was also the moment when it became clear that imperial collapse was in the cards. 

If the "velvet revolutions”  that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 tolled the death knell for the Soviet empire, then the "jasmine revolutions" now spreading across the Middle East may well mark the beginning of the end for American global power.

Putting the Military in Charge

To understand the importance of local elites, look back to the Cold War’s early days when a desperate White House was searching for something, anything that could halt the seemingly unstoppable spread of what Washington saw as anti-American and pro-communist sentiment. In December 1954, the National Security Council (NSC) met in the White House to stake out a strategy that could tame the powerful nationalist forces of change then sweeping the globe.

Across Asia and Africa, a half-dozen European empires that had guaranteed global order for more than a century were giving way to 100 new nations, many -- as Washington saw it -- susceptible to “communist subversion.” In Latin America, there were stirrings of leftist opposition to the region’s growing urban poverty and rural landlessness.

After a review of the “threats”  facing the U.S. in Latin America, influential Treasury Secretary George Humphrey informed his NSC colleagues that they should “stop talking so much about democracy” and instead “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” At that moment with a flash of strategic insight, Dwight Eisenhower interrupted to observe that Humphrey was, in effect, saying, “They’re OK if they’re our s.o.b.’s.”

 
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