Is the American empire in irreversible decline? Wishful thinking says Tariq Ali
The United States is now unchallengeable militarily and it dominates global politics, even the politics of countries it treats as its enemies.
THREE DECADES ago, with the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the South American dictatorships, many hoped that the much talked about ‘peace dividend’ promised by Bush senior and Thatcher would actually materialise.
No such luck. Instead, we have experienced continuous wars, upheavals, intolerance and fundamentalisms of every sort – religious, ethnic and imperial. The exposure of the Western world’s surveillance networks has heightened the feeling that democratic institutions aren’t functioning as they should, that, like it or not, we are living in the twilight period of democracy itself.
The twilight began in the early 1990s with the implosion of the former Soviet Union and the takeover of Russia, Central Asia and much of Eastern Europe by visionless former Communist Party bureaucrats, many of whom rapidly became billionaires.
The oligarchs who bought up some of the most expensive property in the world, including in London, may once have been members of the Communist Party, but they were also opportunists with no commitment to anything other than power and lining their own pockets.
The vacuum created by the collapse of the party system has been filled by different things in different parts of the world, among them religion – and not just Islam. The statistics on the growth of religion in the Western world are dramatic – just look at France.
And we have also seen the rise of a global empire of unprecedented power. The United States is now unchallengeable militarily and it dominates global politics, even the politics of the countries it treats as its enemies.
If you compare the recent demonisation of Putin to the way Yeltsin was treated at a time when he was committing many more shocking atrocities – destroying the entire city of Grozny, for example – you see that what is at stake is not principle, but the interests of the world’s predominant power.
There hasn’t been such an empire before, and it’s unlikely that there will be one again. The United States is the site of the most remarkable economic development of recent times, the emergence on the West Coast of the IT revolution. Yet despite these advances in capitalist technology, the political structure of the United States has barely changed for a hundred and fifty years. It may be militarily, economically and even culturally in command – its soft power dominates the world – but there is as yet no sign of political change from within. Can this contradiction last?
There is ongoing debate around the world on the question of whether the American empire is in decline. And there is a vast literature of declinism, all arguing that this decline has begun and is irreversible. I see this as wishful thinking.
The American empire has had setbacks – which empire doesn’t? It had setbacks in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: many thought the defeat it suffered in Vietnam in 1975 was definitive. It wasn’t, and the United States hasn’t suffered another setback on that scale since.
But unless we know and understand how this empire functions globally, it’s very difficult to propose any set of strategies to combat or contain it – or, as the realist theorists like the late Chalmers Johnson and John Mearsheimer demand, to make the United States dismantle its bases, get out of the rest of the world, and operate at a global level only if it is actually threatened as a country.
Many realists in the United States argue that such a withdrawal is necessary, but they are arguing from a position of weakness in the sense that setbacks which they regard as irreversible aren’t. There are very few reversals from which imperial states can’t recover. Some of the declinist arguments are simplistic – that, for example, all empires have eventually collapsed.
This is of course true, but there are contingent reasons for those collapses, and at the present moment the United States remains unassailable: it exerts its soft power all over the world, including in the heartlands of its economic rivals; its hard power is still dominant, enabling it to occupy countries it sees as its enemies; and its ideological power is still overwhelming in Europe and beyond.
The US has, however, suffered setbacks on a semi-continental scale in South America. And these setbacks have been political and ideological rather than economic. The chain of electoral victories for left political parties in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia showed that there was a possible alternative within capitalism. None of these governments, though, is challenging the capitalist system, and this is equally true of the radical parties that have recently emerged in Europe.
Neither Syriza in Greece nor Podemos in Spain is mounting a systemic challenge; the reforms being proposed are better compared to the policies pushed through by Attlee in Britain after 1945. Like the leftist parties in South America, they have essentially social democratic programmes, combined with mass mobilisation.
But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times.
Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening.
If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.
We have seen the development of a form of government I call the extreme centre, which currently rules over large tracts of Europe and includes left, centre left, centre right and centre parties.
A whole swathe of the electorate, young people in particular, feels that voting makes no difference at all, given the political parties we have. The extreme centre wages wars, either on its own account or on behalf of the United States; it backs austerity measures; it defends surveillance as absolutely necessary to defeat terrorism, without ever asking why this terrorism is happening – to question this is almost to be a terrorist oneself.
Why do the terrorists do it? Are they unhinged? Is it something that emerges from deep inside their religion? These questions are counterproductive and useless.
If you ask whether American imperial policy or British or French foreign policy is in any way responsible, you’re attacked. But of course the intelligence agencies and security services know perfectly well that the reason for people going crazy – and it is a form of craziness – is that they are driven not by religion but by what they see.
Hussain Osman, one of the men who failed to bomb the London Underground on 21 July 2005, was arrested in Rome a week later. ‘More than praying we discussed work, politics, the war in Iraq,’ he told the Italian interrogators. ‘We always had new films of the war in Iraq … those in which you could see Iraqi women and children who had been killed by US and UK soldiers.’ Eliza Manningham-Buller, who resigned as head of MI5 in 2007, said: ‘Our involvement in Iraq has radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people.’
Before the 2003 war Iraq, under the authoritarian dictatorship of Saddam and his predecessor, had the highest level of education in the Middle East. When you point this out you’re accused of being a Saddam apologist, but Baghdad University in the 1980s had more female professors than Princeton did in 2009; there were crèches to make it easier for women to teach at schools and universities. In Baghdad and Mosul – currently occupied by Islamic State – there were libraries dating back centuries. The Mosul library was functioning in the eighth century, and had manuscripts from ancient Greece in its vaults. The Baghdad library, as we know, was looted after the occupation, and what’s going on now in the libraries of Mosul is no surprise, with thousands of books and manuscripts destroyed.
Everything that has happened in Iraq is a consequence of that disastrous war, which assumed genocidal proportions. The numbers who died are disputed, because the Coalition of the Willing doesn’t count up the civilian casualties in the country it’s occupying. Why should it bother? But others have estimated that up to a million Iraqis were killed, mainly civilians. The puppet government installed by the Occupation confirmed these figures obliquely in 2006 by officially admitting that there were five million orphans in Iraq.
The occupation of Iraq is one of the most destructive acts in modern history. Even though Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked, the social and political structure of the Japanese state was maintained; although the Germans and Italians were defeated in the Second World War, most of their military structures, intelligence structures, police structures and judicial structures were kept in place, because there was another enemy already in the offing – communism. But Iraq was treated as no other country has been treated before.
The reason people don’t quite see this is that once the occupation began all the correspondents came back home. You can count the exceptions on the fingers of one hand: Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, one or two others. Iraq’s social infrastructure still isn’t working, years after the occupation ended; it’s been wrecked. The country has been demodernised. The West has destroyed Iraq’s education services and medical services; it handed over power to a group of clerical Shia parties which immediately embarked on bloodbaths of revenge. Several hundred university professors were killed. If this isn’t disorder, what is?
In the case of Afghanistan, everyone knows what was actually behind this grand attempt, as the US and Britain put it, to ‘modernise’ the country. Cherie Blair and Laura Bush said it was a war for women’s liberation. If it had been, it would have been the first in history. We now know what it really was: a crude war of revenge which failed because the occupation strengthened those it sought to destroy. The war didn’t just devastate Afghanistan and what infrastructure it had, but destabilised Pakistan too, which has nuclear weapons, and is now also in a very dangerous state.
These two wars haven’t done anyone any good, but they have succeeded in dividing the Muslim and Arab world, whether or not this was intended. The US decision to hand over power to clerical Shia parties deepened the Sunni-Shia divide: there was ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, which used to be a mixed city in a country where intermarriage between Sunni and Shia was common. The Americans acted as if all Sunnis were Saddam supporters, yet many Sunnis suffered arbitrary jail sentences under him. But the creation of this divide has ended Arab nationalism for a long time to come. The battles now are to do with which side the US backs in which conflict. In Iraq, it backs the Shia.
The demonisation of Iran is deeply unjust, because without the tacit support of the Iranians the Americans could not have taken Iraq. And the Iraqi resistance against the occupation was only making headway until the Iranians told the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who’d been collaborating with Sunni opponents of the regime, to call it off. He was taken to Tehran and given a ‘holiday’ there for a year.
Without Iranian support in both Iraq and Afghanistan it would have been very difficult for the United States to sustain its occupations. Iran was thanked with sanctions, further demonisation, double standards – Israel can have nuclear weapons, you can’t. The Middle East is now in a total mess: the central, most important power is Israel, expanding away; the Palestinians have been defeated and will remain defeated for a very long time to come; all the principal Arab countries are wrecked, first Iraq, now Syria; Egypt, with a brutal military dictatorship in power, is torturing and killing as if the Arab Spring had never happened – and for the military leaders it hasn’t.
As for Israel, the blind support it gets from the US is an old story. And to question it, nowadays, is to be labelled an anti-Semite. The danger with this strategy is that if you say to a generation which had no experience of the Holocaust outside of movies that to attack Israel is anti-Semitic, the reply will be: so what? ‘Call us anti-Semitic if you want,’ young people will say. ‘If that means opposing you, we are.’ So it hasn’t helped anyone. It’s inconceivable that any Israeli government is going to grant the Palestinians a state. As the late Edward Said warned us, the Oslo Accords were a Palestinian Treaty of Versailles. Actually, they are much worse than that.
So the disintegration of the Middle East that began after the First World War continues. Whether Iraq will be divided into three countries, whether Syria will be divided into two or three countries, we don’t know.
But it would hardly be surprising if all the states in the region, barring Egypt, which is too large to dismantle, ended up as bantustans, or principalities, on the model of Qatar and the other Gulf States, funded and kept going by the Saudis, on the one hand, and the Iranians, on the other.
This is a shortened version of Tariq Ali's article. The full version is here...