The problem with “turning points”, as they’re commonly described in popular forms of historical storytelling, is that very few of them were recognized clearly as such at the time.
When I’m in the archives reading past individuals writing to and talking to one another, I’m often struck that they accord as much importance to events and news that we now consider to be either a trivial sideshow or to have been a small part of some significant general trend. Sometimes those same people treat what we now consider to be an absolutely crucial moment as if it were merely one more event of note: e.g, they often know that it matters but it’s not as if they are changed in a flash.
When you teach and study the history of the post-1945 world, particularly if you’re a specialist who focuses on a part of the world that had previously been under European imperial rule or you focus on the Cold War, the Suez Crisis of 1956-1957 is one of the absolutely unquestioned major “turning points” that you draw attention to. Certainly any adult with even a moderate interest in global affairs who lived through that time, particularly in England, France or the United States, remembers it. People at the time knew it was important, and for many British and French citizens it was a key turning point in their views of empire, the Cold War, the United States and the non-Western world. But if you read the correspondence of officials who were not absolutely in the heart of the storm at that exact moment, they sometimes just lumped Suez in with lots of other developments or felt it would be resolved in a more ordinary, expected way that was largely continuous with the prior history of empire. It was only five or ten years out that everyone could see clearly that Suez was the moment where the changed relation between Western Europe and the U.S. was finalized, where the terms of the Cold War in relation to the Non-Aligned Movement were really defined, where the end of empire became inevitable, where the blighted politics and military doctrines of Middle East rivalries congealed. It was quickly clear within the UK that Anthony Eden had been destroyed politically by the resolution of the crisis, but the intensity of the stench of failure and miscalculation around his decision-making has become far more pronounced in the decades since.
I’m raising this point because right now it is becoming clear that the post-imperial moment for the United States is not in some relatively imminent future but has already come and gone. It’s becoming clear that the Iraq War, contrary to the dearest wishes of its most lunatic devotees, was the Suez of the Pax Americana, that moment that comes in the life of most empires, however they’re configured, where they are goaded into a florid, expensive attempt to secure a distant frontier and end up proving only that the core no longer has and never will again have the resources or reputation to succeed in such attempts.
The brash neoconservative ideologues who planned and enacted the war never believed in “soft power” and so never realized the importance of reputation and sincerity, never realized the subtle benefits of international legitimacy, never realized that it actually mattered that the United States at least try to define and adhere to a more moral standard of conduct than its rivals and adversaries. Never realized that if you pull a Reichstag fire with your intelligence and send the guy who people trust the most out to tell lies and exaggerations, you will never be trusted again even when you’re telling the truth.
So they threw all of that soft power overboard in a way that makes it impossible to accumulate more of it, not that the current Administration is making much effort even after receiving an overearnest plea to go back to being the America the world used to know from the Nobel Prize Committee back in 2009.
Equally, the Iraq War’s planners managed to demonstrate what the upper limit of American military and economic resources were and where the political tolerance of a population much more eager to appear supportive of its military would end. Much as Suez made it clear that the UK and France would never again be able to control their empires if any territory or people refused to bow to “hegemony on a shoestring”. In both moments, all the old diplomatic and miltiary magic tricks were exposed for the shabby, threadbare things that they had become. The nitty-gritty revelations of the Wikileaks cables about how American officials struggled to gain even minute advantages in a hundred countries around the globe were already visible for anyone who cared to see in the straining inability of the United States to even decide what it wanted in Iraq, let alone achieve its aims.
The principal difference is that the American public and its punditry doesn’t know that the end of American dominance has already happened, let alone acknowledge who is to blame for it. Eden’s disgrace began immediately, whereas only the people who opposed the Iraq War in the first place so far seem to hold its planners fully accountable for the permanent damage it caused. So our talking heads continue to talk about what we should do about Egypt, or how we should dictate terms to Syria, and so on. Really that kind of talk was always a mistake, both morally and empirically, but now it’s a delusion.
The sad part of all this is that when the people of Aleppo cry out to the world and ask why the world has failed them, they are really crying out to the imaginary “world” of the Pax Americana, which even if it never lived up to its billing, was at least a world where it seemed somehow possible that something would be done and something was doable. The “world” to which the burned and dying of Aleppo now cry out is a world that has never cared for them. It’s a world that is ruled by political elites who either look at such an atrocity and calculate when they themselves might have need to order such actions or who avert their gaze and hope that somehow there’s a ten-point policy framework dreamed up by a gang of think-tank eunuchs that clearly spells out what the next six years of multilateral summits should talk about in order to determine what the following six years of summits should talk about and oh dear it’s terribly complex.
They’re not wrong, it is terribly complex and yet is also simple. Somebody flew a plane, someone dropped an awful weapon that should never exist except in nightmares, and the flesh of people who just want to go about their business melted. It’s terribly complex in the sense that there are people with political power in Syria who don’t seem to care much about Syrians, who have no vision about power except to keep it. They don’t pretend any longer to have ideology or purpose. It almost seems beside the point to call yourself the Democratic Republic of Bullshitistan and stage photo opportunities to prove you are the Beloved Leader. North Korea never fails to amuse for this reason: it’s like the Renaissance Faire of postwar politics, re-enacting when regimes cared enough to create elaborate lies about their benevolence. Now you just go ahead and kill people or promise that if your rebellion wins you’ll kill the other kind of people or at least cut a few hands off here and there. Or you go from being the regime that shelters dissidents to angrily chasing down your own, from being the regime that opposes torture to being the regime that normalizes it.
There isn’t even a fairy tale any more to believe in, nor a sovereign to petition. If you were with the dying in Aleppo and you cried out in anger that the world has failed you, you’re only wrong about one thing: there’s no ‘world’ left to have failed. The only hope is in you yourselves, and you’ve already given everything you had to give and more.
Maybe there will be some world that we can imagine doing something, once again starting a halting walk towards global progress, some future day after the United States gets over being over. You can be over and come out the other side truer and better to the deep histories and values of your people and nation. “I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” But empires that don’t know they’re not any more have often managed to thrash their phantom limbs hard enough to either cause enormous suffering (the humiliation of Suez was avenged in part on the people of Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion and on the people of Algeria as that war ground to a close) or lead to farces like the Falklands War.
As always, I think you caricature us happy warmongers. Three quick queries though:
1) Do you actually now favor American military action of some sort in Syria?–e.g., without sanction of Congress, the UN, etc.–in preference to doing nothing militarily?
2) Which reminds me, I forgot to check in at the time–did you favor our Libyan intervention? (for which similar executive unilateralism applied)
3) Have you noticed that this is actually a rather Burkean moment? I’ve been reading all sorts of people on the web, in the US and the UK, throughout the political spectrum, and lots of them are saying, “You have to be careful about intervening, there are always unexpected ramifications.” I keep on hearing echoes of you.
I don’t favor it because we are no longer capable of it for the reasons this post suggests. What you might poke me on, and what I might admit to, is that this suggests that I might once have–but what I would then reply with is that the Pax Americana that I thought could have had a chance to be something with long legs is basically Jimmy Carter’s version of empire–attentive to soft power first, military power second. Perhaps with more teeth, more competence and a different figurehead…
The Libyan intervention struck me as an interesting middling case–where there was some pretty serious limits being put on the nature of the military action and some serious evidence of a willingness to walk away–but also where the attention to humanitarian issues was less capricious and arbitrary than it seems now. It was just, “Look, these folks are trying to overthrow a dictator and they’ve been pushed back to the sea and they’re all going to die if we don’t do something.” I preferred that relative degree of honesty as opposed to the absolutely mendacious wordsmithing of “Well, this is is sort of what we meant about chemical weapons because well it’s a red line except for maybe when we didn’t do anything about that guy or this guy and well because chemical weapons are so very different than carpet-bombing neighborhoods and you know, what serious people think.”
People have relearned the lesson that war is always about the unexpected. They should never have forgotten it, whomever they are and whatever their ideologies are. Anyone who doesn’t know that is fundamentally unserious about war (morally or strategically) and is a historical ignoramus besides.
By the by, while I am generally Pessimistic about the American Empire, there’s a case to be made that we’ll make out OK because all our competitors are even more dysfunctional than we are. (I suppose that would specifically be “China has some spectacular problems looming.) Or, for a middle ground, that our decline will be slower than you might think because our competitors are nearly as dysfunctional as we are. Just thought I’d throw that out there.
By the by, when the American Empire collapses, isn’t that also going to put a crimp in African History? I can see most History departments shrinking back to a largely American core when we no longer rule the world.
This is priceless. You display beautiful thinking and even more beautiful word-smithing, and your descriptions of the think tank Eunuchs (I am sure I had a run-in last year with some of them at a conference at Duke), and North Korea as Renaissance Faire are so nice I had to read them twice. I look forward to reading more. BTW, your blog comes today recommended to me by Tenured Radical on FB.
What happened was that George Bush invaded Panama, and it turned out as well as anyone dreamed. A loathsome dictator deposed, all our stuff worked great, hardly anyone got killed, and the people got on with their lives afterwards. Still fucked-up, but (other than the dead ones) not significantly more fucked-up than before.
And the result of that was the idea that the United States could go into a place, destroy the existing government, install a new one, leave, and everything would be fine.
“I don’t favor it because we are no longer capable of it for the reasons this post suggests.”
Oh, we’re plenty capable of blowing up Syria’s chemical-weapons stores, and their means of delivering those weapons.
What we’re not capable of is mind-controlling the entirety of the Arab world to convince them that this means the United States of America is a good friendly country they should like.
The first thing a battered woman does when the cops arrest her boyfriend is to scream and cry about how they’re a bunch of bastards. The cops, she means, because they’re arresting her boyfriend. Being part of the tribe and attacking the outsider is far more important than anything the other tribe members might be doing to you.
Kind of puzzled by the idea that the Falklands War was a farce. Fascist dictatorship invades neighbouring territory. Population liberated by their desired government, despite difficulties of military operations as a great distance from fixed bases. Fascist dictatorship subsequently [and partly at least consequently] removed from power.
There WAS an associated farce, of course, but it was all in the diplomatic sphere, before, during and after…
I think Vietnam spelled the end for that “Empire” and it was a short lived one. When you send young soldiers to fight and die for no cause except a political dogmatic false-flag war, it’s easy to lose support of the public. I can’t imagine an educated American that doesn’t understand that government is run by and for big bucks ( i.e. corporate interests) and that the people’s government “for the people by the people” has disappeared completely except in the propaganda.
best thing I’ve read on these issues.
Timothy: “The sad part of all this is that when the people of Aleppo cry out to the world and ask why the world has failed them, they are really crying out to the imaginary “world” of the Pax Americana, which even if it never lived up to its billing, was at least a world where it seemed somehow possible that something would be done and something was doable. The “world” to which the burned and dying of Aleppo now cry out is a world that has never cared for them. ”
Back in the days of Pax Americana, the US was quite capable of selling ‘chemical technology’ to the people who gas people, giving them satellite intel to help gas better, and send the diplomats out to poo-poo the ‘crazy’ idea that one of Our Guys would use such weapons. And that’s for the forbidden weapons; whenever it came down to some mass murder carried out with good old-fashioned artillery, bombs and machine guns, the US would happily sell the guns, ammunition and train people in the finer points of torture.
“Oh, we’re plenty capable of blowing up Syria’s chemical-weapons stores, and their means of delivering those weapons.”
No, we are capable of blowing up *some* of each.
I re-read this original post today, having read it when it first came out (as highlighted on Alec Resnick’s tumblr: http://alecresnick.tumblr.com).
I read it again because, though quite depressing in its actual premises, truth and the unflinching willingness to look at reality straight on makes me feel sane again in an increasingly insane (definitely increasingly “dysfunctional” as WithyWindle says above)
world. I know that foundation of an attempt to look “straight at reality”, without the cowardly and self-serving equivocation, is the only one on which true problem-solving or effective change, if there is any hope for it, is based.
But I am not sure I agree about Syria. I am not sure…for the same reasons you state Timothy…the current reality and thinking and “political” vacillation (depending apparently on political campaign donor calculations). But I think the definition of a true morality is that it doesn’t vacillate based on those calculations.
The time to act in Syria was immediately after knowing (and it isn’t really that hard) that Assad acted pretty much as expected. Actually the time to act was beforehand, by having a thought out plan that showed you believed in your own espoused morality and what a “Red Line” means; that you take responsibility for knowing that before you draw it. It doesn’t mean — re-doing calculations based on pointless public opinion polls (does it depend on what gas was used? or how the wind was blowing that day?) and how it “plays” politically.
Once you gather your solid facts, (what is all your billions of intrusive intelligence apparatus worth if you can’t move heaven and earth to get evidence of a humanitarian crime with this much “footprint”?) and avoid the lying cloud of total obfuscation that was WMD that foretold all the rest about the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Administration and their vision of both morality and war, you act. You act “strategically”, having already considered those actions and their most effective result and possible repercussions.
Sociopathic bullies never backdown once they see only cowards vacillating around them, history having taught us this above all else. Millions of lives having already paid the price of convenience-morality, which always runs from the risk of being truly stalwart, when that is the only morally valid response.
Yes, America lost any semblance of that true moral highground long ago, and perhaps a semblance is all we ever really had. But many Americans truly believed in it; morality still has its converts even today there and other places. It would be nice to see it again, in any leadership of anyone in the US, at all.
Thank you nonetheless, for the sad sanity of this piece.
The better analogy for the Iraq War is the Boer War, IMHO — launched on false pretext, relatively fast conventional victory followed by dispiriting unconventional warfare that leads to the creation of a compromise government that fails to live up to the liberal ideals that were used to sell the invasion, produces a country that’s a pretty marginal ally of the invader (notwithstanding the dependency of the compromise government on the invader’s support for a number of years after the war), while exposing the invading power’s weaknesses and alienating many countries that were otherwise friendly or at least neutral before. Intervention in Syria would be more like Suez in that it is an even more unilateral action than Iraq and with an even weaker rationale under international law and the level of force proposed is incompatible with achieving the stated objectives.