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by Alexander Cockburn, February 10, 2011
Turn on the TV and you hear the predictable bray from predictable types like Mort Zuckerman, Zbigniev Brzezinski, John Bolton and the Israel Lobby passim that, say what you will, Mubarak and Tunisia’s ejected president Ben Ali and other prospectively tottering tyrants are “our sons of bitches,” as FDR put it, and we should stand by them in recognition of decades of useful service to the Empire. Republicans will be hammering Obama for “losing” Tunisia and maybe Egypt etc., through this coming election cycle.
The prototype here is 1979, after the Empire “lost” Iran and Nicaragua on Carter’s watch. Henry Kissinger made passionate speeches about US ingratitude to the Shah as he flew around the world seeking sanctuary (before he finally took up residence in Egypt.) The intellectual — albeit too flattering a word — case was made by Jeane Kirkpatrick in an article in the November, 1979 edition of Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary, at that time published under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee.
Kirkpatrick’s trick was to have two different words for their dictators and ours. Their guys were “totalitarian”; our guys were “authoritarian,” a fine distinction that was swiftly seized upon by the Commentariat in general and hailed as a marvel of intellectual perspicacity. Pro-western “authoritarian” regimes were always preferable and more susceptible of reform than the “totalitarian” regimes that might succeed them.
Both Iran and Nicaragua were, Kirkpatrick equably conceded, “led by men who had not been selected by free elections, … who sometimes invoked martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, and occasionally, it was alleged [sic], torture their opponents.”
Now for the other shoe. But “they were positively friendly to the US, sending their sons and others to be educated in our universities, voting with us in the United Nations, and regularly supporting American interests and positions even when these entailed personal and political cost. The embassies of both governments were… frequented by powerful Americans. And the shah and Somoza themselves were both welcome in Washington, and had many American friends.” Then, “viewing international developments in terms of… a contemporary version of the same idea of progress that has traumatized western imaginations since the Enlightenment,” the Carter administration made a fatal mistake: it encouraged “regime change.” (Thanks to Serge Halimi, director of Le Monde Diplomatique for reminding us of Kirkpatrick’s insights, in the current edition of LMD.)
Attack the Enlightenment, legitimate torture… Kirkpatrick was on her way. She became a big star and Reagan made her his ambassador to the UN.
So the Empire fostered its cordon sanitaire of “authoritarian regimes,” stretching from fanatic sons of Islam (Ul-Haq in Pakistan, the Saudi Kingdom), to Hussein in Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, on through the Maghreb.
It was from Tunisia that US Ambassador Godec sent his famous Wikileaked cable of July 2009 to the State Department, describing “a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems,” ruled by a family of greedy thieves. Washington promptly provided $12 million in military aid to Tunisia, a handout where, as Noam Chomsky points out, “Tunisia was one of only five foreign beneficiaries: Israel (routinely); the two Middle East dictatorships Egypt and Jordan; and Colombia, which has long had the worst human-rights record and the most US military aid in the hemisphere.”
Kirkpatrick, in 1979, was firmly in the grip of theories of economic development promoted by Rostow and others in the Sixties, arguing that our system could deliver the economic goods to its satellites better than theirs.
Here we are in 2011 amid the rubble of these theories, three decades into full-bore neoliberalism and “restructuring.” The former Soviet satellites are learning the lesson too. You want capitalism? There’s a bill to pay. But there’s a limit to what people will put up with. As Simone Weil put it in her great essay on the Iliad, “the strong is never perfectly strong, nor the weak perfectly weak.” These days, amid the huge inflation in the price of basic commodities, soaring unemployment, zero prospects for young people, plutocratic parasitism at an apex — something has to give, just as it has in Tunisia and Egypt and will elsewhere.
As the Egyptian-American film director Suzy Kassem writes on our CounterPunch.org website:
“A human being can only take so much when their basic rights as a citizen of the earth are being denied to them — or sold at a high cost. When you have to pay for clean water, a sustainable roof that won’t collapse, a C-class car that costs double because of duty taxes, and have to tolerate bribes and corruption on every level just to get your mail, pay a bill, get a document, buy your bread, or open a business — eventually steaming water starts boiling and whistling loudly. And Egypt has finally whistled to their captain that they’ve had enough.”
There is a God that’s failing — at least in its benign pretensions — and it’s called capitalism.
Right now, the realities for the White House start with (a) international credibility, and (b) the Israel lobby. After two years, the pledge of a new era of respect and understanding towards the Arab world and Islam, proclaimed by Obama in Cairo, is viewed with derision across the region. Obama is seen as Netanyahu’s errand boy, just as Mubarak is despised as having the role of enabling the myth of the “peace process.”
On the other hand the White House is being besieged by the Israel Lobby which is following the script being hysterically written in the press in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with headlines such as “We’re on our own,” “Obama’s betrayal of Mubarak,” and “A bullet in the back from Uncle Sam.”
Aside from the spirit of disinterested patriotism, it’s amazing that anyone would want the job of running Egypt, You’d have to be over 60 at least to remember clearly how Egypt was once honored across the Arab world. Politically, it’s a particularly vicious police state. The Army — on which the US has lavished billions — should not be oversold as a relatively benign force, even though the wretchedly poor conscripts would think twice before shooting their fellow villagers or relatives in the cities. Mubarak is despised, as he has been throughout his entire career. These days, mutilated by neoliberal policies forced on it by the usual international agencies, the country is an economic disaster zone that can only feed its exploding population nine months in the year. The current political explosion has sharply aggravated the economic crisis.
The custodians of the American Empire are right to be perturbed. Those crowds in Tunis and in Cairo, facing projectiles “made in America,” know well enough the ultimate sponsor of the tyrannies against which they have risen. A belated chirp for “democracy” from Obama or Secretary of State Clinton will not purge that record. A Brookings poll released last August showed a few Arabs agreeing with Washington that Iran is a threat: just 10%. They regard the US and Israel as the major threats (77%; 88%); 57% think regional security would be enhanced if Iran had nuclear weapons!
Politically outmaneuvered and militarily checked in Iraq, the United States is now in the midst of rapid withdrawal. Iran is now hugely influential in Baghdad. Just two US-owned oil companies — Exxon and Occidental — now lease concessions on Iraq’s gigantic reserves. Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia are, so to speak, the crown jewels, when it comes to oil reserves. The Empire has effectively lost Iran and Iraq. What of Saudi Arabia? Already Yemen is shaky. Jordan trembles. Suppose, however unlikely, fissures open up in the Kingdom itself?
I doubt, at such a juncture, that we would hear too much talk from Washington about “democracy” or orderly transitions. The Empire would send in the 101st Airborne, even as Osama bin Laden heads west from the Hindu Kush and the dollar plummets south. That would be more than a tremor. It would be an earthquake.
You want the full-bore scenario. I give you the crazed Cassandra of the Fox Channel, Mr. Glenn Beck and his map, pointer a-tremble. Glenn, always a pleasure, and so much more lively that an NSC memo to Obama probably saying the same thing at much greater length:
“Here’s how a caliphate could play out.
You have Somalia and Iran already in green. Now, let’s add Tunisia. …Same thing now with Egypt. Here is Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood want this. They want a power-grab from Mubarak…. Then you have Jordan, the king is already considered a puppet because he sides with Western forces. Today, he said he’s going to change out his government.
“Then you have Syria. Here’s Jordan. Here’s Syria. Syria is already a puppet of the Iranians. And then you have Yemen. This is Saudi Arabia. All of your oil comes from here… And we have Lebanon. Iranian-backed Hezbollah is in the driver’s seat of their government…
“If you go back to Africa, you have Nigeria. Parts of the country are already controlled by Sharia law. Somalia, most of the country right now is living under Islamic law. Sudan — the country is split with Sudan. The north is imposing Sharia law already. The south is largely Christian. They’re slaughtering each other.
“Here’s Algeria. Notice its location. Algeria — Al-Qaeda already has a significance presence there. Then you have the Ivory Coast down here, the election turmoil is going on right now between Christians and the new Islamic president.
“And then you have all the other ones that are on a tipping point, Libya — Libya has already been anti-Israel, pro-terrorism for a long time.
“And then you have Morocco. Morocco — important, significant al-Qaeda activity. Iraq is really important, especially to the Shiites, especially to the Twelvers who are in charge of this country right now. Because what is in Iraq? There’s one place that we told our bombers not to bomb. Does anybody know what it was?
“Two wars in Iraq. We [Yes, both Bushes are serfs of the Prophet] said no bombing there. Ancient Babylon. Ancient Babylon. Why? Because the Bible tells us that that is the seat — right here — of power of a global, evil empire.
“Turkey was originally the seat of the Ottoman Empire, the last caliphate. It’s now modern day Turkey. It has an Islamist government that is moving aggressively pro-Iran, anti-Israel.
“Saudi Arabia, God help them, I don’t know what happens to those guys. And the Gulf States are all nearly defenseless and tiny, all of them, throw them in. Do you have it?
“Now, what happens? You move over to Asia and grab the ones — once these dominoes start to fall and the Muslims start to see oh, my gosh, we might have a caliphate. We might be able to have Islam impose Sharia law all over the globe.
“The Iberian Peninsula is very weak.
“Let’s talk about 22% unemployment in Spain. It’s also once a Muslim land. They have high Muslim populations. It’s already in trouble. Bad economic situations, food prices go up.
“Well, let me ask you this. Here’s Spain. Here’s France. What happens to France? You already have a lot of Algerians living there. If you go to Italy, you have the Libyans living there. You have Great Britain where many of them are from Pakistan.”