“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Unravelling of American Empire in Arabia

How will America handle the fall of its Middle East empire?

By Peter Oborne Last updated: February 24th, 2011


"2011 will mark the removal of many of America’s client regimes in the Arab world. It is highly unlikely, however, that events will thereafter take the tidy path the White House would prefer. Far from being inspired by Twitter, a great many of Arab people who have driven the sensational events of recent weeks are illiterate. They have been impelled into action by mass poverty and unemployment, allied to a sense of disgust at vast divergences of wealth and grotesque corruption."

Empires can collapse in the course of a generation. At the end of the 16th century, the Spanish looked dominant. Twenty-five years later, they were on their knees, over-extended, bankrupt, and incapable of coping with the emergent maritime powers of Britain and Holland. The British empire reached its fullest extent in 1930. Twenty years later, it was all over.

Today, it is reasonable to ask whether the United States, seemingly invincible a decade ago, will follow the same trajectory. America has suffered two convulsive blows in the last three years. The first was the financial crisis of 2008, whose consequences are yet to be properly felt. Although the immediate cause was the debacle in the mortgage market, the underlying problem was chronic imbalance in the economy.

For a number of years, America has been incapable of funding its domestic programmes and overseas commitments without resorting to massive help from China, its global rival. China has a pressing motive to assist: it needs to sustain US demand in order to provide a market for its exports and thus avert an economic crisis of its own. This situation is the contemporary equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the doctrine which prevented nuclear war breaking out between America and Russia.
Unlike MAD, this pact is unsustainable. But Barack Obama has not sought to address the problem. Instead, he responded to the crisis with the same failed policies that caused the trouble in the first place: easy credit and yet more debt. It is certain that America will, in due course, be forced into a massive adjustment both to its living standards at home and its commitments abroad.

This matters because, following the second convulsive blow, America’s global interests are under threat on a scale never before seen. Since 1956, when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles pulled the plug on Britain and France over Suez, the Arab world has been a US domain. At first, there were promises that it would tolerate independence and self-determination. But this did not last long; America chose to govern through brutal and corrupt dictators, supplied with arms, military training and advice from Washington.

The momentous importance of the last few weeks is that this profitable, though morally bankrupt, arrangement appears to be coming to an end. One of the choicest ironies of the bloody and macabre death throes of the regime in Libya is that Colonel Gaddafi would have been wiser to have stayed out of the US sphere of influence. When he joined forces with George Bush and Tony Blair five years ago, the ageing dictator was leaping on to a bandwagon that was about to grind to a halt.
In Washington, President Obama has not been stressing this aspect of affairs. Instead, after hesitation, he has presented the recent uprisings as democratic and even pro-American, indeed a triumph for the latest methods of Western communication such as Twitter and Facebook. Many sympathetic commentators have therefore claimed that the Arab revolutions bear comparison with the 1989 uprising of the peoples of Eastern Europe against Soviet tyranny.

I would guess that the analogy is apt. Just as 1989 saw the collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe, so it now looks as if 2011 will mark the removal of many of America’s client regimes in the Arab world. It is highly unlikely, however, that events will thereafter take the tidy path the White House would prefer. Far from being inspired by Twitter, a great many of Arab people who have driven the sensational events of recent weeks are illiterate. They have been impelled into action by mass poverty and unemployment, allied to a sense of disgust at vast divergences of wealth and grotesque corruption. It is too early to chart the future course of events with confidence, but it seems unlikely that these liberated peoples will look to Washington and New York as their political or economic model.
The great question is whether America will take its diminished status gracefully, or whether it will lash out, as empires in trouble are historically prone to do. Here the White House response gives cause for concern. American insensitivity is well demonstrated in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA man who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore. Hillary Clinton is trying to bully Pakistan into awarding Davis diplomatic immunity. This is incredible behaviour, which shows that the US continues to regard itself as above the law. Were President Zardari, already seen by his fellow countrymen as a pro-American stooge, to comply, his government would almost certainly fall.

Or take President Obama’s decision last week to veto the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Even America itself accepts that these settlements are illegal. At a time when the Middle East is already mutinous, this course of action looks mad.

The biggest problem is that America wants democracy, but only on its own terms. A very good example of this concerns the election of a Hamas government in Gaza in 2006. This should have been a hopeful moment for the Middle East peace process: the election of a government with the legitimacy and power to end violence. But America refused to engage with Hamas, just as it has refused to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or to acknowledge the well-founded regional aspirations of Iran.

The history of the Arab world since the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate in 1922 can be divided schematically into two periods: open colonial rule under the British and French, followed by America’s invisible empire after the Second World War. Now we are entering a third epoch, when Arab nations, and in due course others, will assert their independence. It is highly unlikely that all of them will choose a path that the Americans want. From the evidence available, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are muddled and incapable of grasping the nature of current events.
This is where the British, who have deep historical connections with the region, and whose own loss of empire is still within living memory, ought to be able to offer wise and practical advice. So far the Prime Minister, a neophyte in foreign affairs, has not done so. His regional tour of Middle Eastern capitals with a caravan of arms dealers made sense only in terms of the broken settlement of the last 50 years. His speeches might have been scripted by Tony Blair a decade ago, with the identical evasions and hypocrisies. There was no acknowledgment of the great paradigm shift in global politics.

The links between the US and British defence, security and foreign policy establishments are so close that perhaps it is no longer possible for any British government to act independently. When challenged, our ministers always say that we use our influence “behind the scenes” with American allies, rather than challenge them in the open. But this, too, is a failed tactic. I am told, for example, that William Hague tried hard to persuade Hillary Clinton not to veto last week’s Security Council resolution, but was ignored. It is time we became a much more candid friend, because the world is changing faster than we know.


  1. Very good article - BUT "Although the immediate cause (of the financial crisis of 2008) was the debacle in the mortgage market, the underlying problem was chronic imbalance in the economy." Wrong!

    The cause was the systematic fraud, deception, corruption and outright theft at staggering levels.

    "The biggest problem is that America wants democracy, but only on its own terms."

    Many times you make distinctions and are careful using the term America to mean the US. What changed?


    'America' actually means all countries on the American continents. The country is called the United States. Calling it 'America' is resorting to imperialist language. The US actually hates democracy and actually doesn't have a democracy itself. Voting every 4 years is NOT democracy, especially when there s NO real choice - you can vote for fascism light or fascism heavy.

    Obama's moral bankruptcy reflects the country's financial bankruptcy. Inadvertently, US government policy has had a major impact on the region, but not in the way they intended. The Federal Reserve's pumping of trillions of dollars into the system has a direct impact on commodity prices, denominated in dollars. The weaker the dollar, the higher the price of commodities. Factor in the speculators with cheap dollars seeking a profit, and you have mass starvation and riots on the streets.

    Our pathetic mainstream media trying to claim Egypt was about Twitter are on another planet. Its about food, poverty and the bankruptcy of our entire system. And this is only just the beginning. A whirlwind is coming our way.

  2. Hugh Hefner says it WAS inspired by Twitter, so I spose you'll be correcting that.

    He's thrilled to see these young, energetic, practitioners of Democracy

    Sharp as a tack, and his 20 year old wife says she has trouble keeping up with him.

    Keeping up no problem for Hef, thanks to Viagra.
    ("that's what it's for")
    Nice to see a traditional couple in this day and age.

    I believed every word.

  3. Many times you make distinctions and are careful using the term America to mean the US. What changed?

    I do make that distinction, but the writer used the term. It is his article, not mine. I often put up posts that are meant to create conversation. Mostly, I am sympathetic but not always.

  4. ..although I did not put the author's on the post, which I will now correct.

  5. Quirk said...

    "The Dems feed their toadies in the unions. The GOP feeds their masters in business.

    While I dislike the public service unions, the billions they extort are chump change compared to the stuff going on at the national level.


    Makes a nice symetrical story, but NO administration in history has doled out as much to Wall Street, the Banks, and Crony Capitalists (can we spell "GE"?) as the Spreader in Chief.

    Those folks made their investment in the Change Agent, and they are reaping their rewards.

    Little Tim, Summers...

    Back in the Day Rubin, Gorelick, and Co did quite well for themselves also.

    But nobody brings in more votes, nor does more harm to the republic than the monopoly national "education" industry.

  6. ...represented by National Public "Service" Unions.

  7. "Walker may be doing the right thing (in my opinion); but he is also doing them for all the wrong reasons (again in my opinion). He appears to be in the pocket of the Koch's and it won't be long before they will be knocking on his door to collect."


    Any meaningful effort based on reducing the hemorage of Govt Spending seems a good reason imo.

  8. Very good article? I guess so if you're writing or reading it from a bitter, superior, America hating perspective.

    Peter Oborne has about as much historical perspective as my dog.

    I could hardly get through the entire piece of progressive drivel.

  9. My eyes rolled when I got to the part saying we should let our big brothers, the Brits step in and straighten out the mess we made in Arab whirled. Let me remind Mr. Oborne that it was the Brits and European colonial powers that got us into this mess.

    Oborne is the kind of insufferable Brit you would like to punch out.

  10. My Lord; Who wrote this nonsense?

  11. Good late night on the last thread. I enjoyed it.

    Please allow me to introduce myself...

  12. The whirled is suffering from China Syndrome and Oborne wants to lay all the blame at the feet of America.

  13. I was having a party of 40-50 guests that didn't show up. So, I went to another party. After an hour of being there I got a phone call asking where I was because all my guests were waiting for me.

    I said no one showed up so I went to another party. I'm guessing there was about 40 people there, too. I was so upset and thought maybe we could combine the two parties.

    But I could hear the people in the background yelling and very angry. I think it would have been impossible to join the two parties together and unite as one and live happily ever after. I remember being very disturbed about the whole situation.

    The party I was at didn't know what was going on so they remained calm. As I was still on the phone I heard someone in the background yell did someone invite Gaddafi.

    Then I woke up.

  14. There nothing like sipping coffee with a tune from Mick.

    Nice choice

  15. The other day I heard Norah Jones singing Wild Horses. It was amazing. I can't find it anywhere on you tube.

  16. Don't feel sad, Deuce. I like your song, too.

    So much, I'm going to add it to my playlist. ( :

  17. This Greeks to Romans stuff was nonsense in the 1950s and 1960s and it is nonsense now. Don't you think the US has any number of capable Arabists of its own? The idea of Britain as a bridge to anywhere is a redundant conceit.

    I found this piece to completely anti-American and anti conservative. This kind of drivel should be left to the Guardian and their ilk.

    Far too much of this article is nonsense. Libya has only been an"ally" for a few years - under Reagan Libya was bombed and supplied Semtex and arms to the IRA. It is only the rise of Islamic terrorism that has changed that.

    Pakistan has been a dubious ally for decades, encouraging and funding terrorism in Afghanistan and India, as well as covertly building nuclear weapons. The US always vetoes UN Resolutions criticising Israel.

    This is just Oborne's post-events bias and prejudice.

    A good political commentator would have predicted these events a few months ago - but he didn't.

    There is a fundamental flaw in this article, namely, the assumption that there could possibly be a benign outcome in the Middle East if American influence declines. If there is a general pattern for revolutions it is that they lead to a prolonged bloodbath followed by the emergence of a regime even worse than the one which preceded it. Ask Jimmy Carter and the Iranians.

  18. Revolution?

    What revolution?

    Certainly not one in Egypt, where Mubarak was a military man and his replacements, military men.

    The guarantors of Egyptian "democracy", the military.

    Who owns the Egyptian military?
    The United States.

    Libya, an old enemy to the interests f the United States. That the Colonel is under pressure, a good thing. Whatever replaces him, better than the "stability" the represents.

    If the Shia of Saudi Arabia rise up, that too, a really good thing.

    That would be in the long term interest of the United States, though short term the pain may seem to be terminal. It won't be.

  19. If the influence that the US peddles across the whirled were to be diminished, that, too, a good thing for the people of the United States.

    A bad day for the Boners of the Ivy League, the self-proclaimed masters of international exploitation and plundered profits.

    Well represented by Team Bush, JFKerry and Mr Mubarak.

  20. .

    Interesting to note, as was pointed out in an article I saw recently, that it is the Presidents that seem to be falling in the ME. The monarchs seem to be holding on.

    One can speculate on the reasons.