The crisis and chaos engulfing the Middle East and Ukraine is evidence of US imperial decline, as Washington learns the harsh lesson that no empire lasts forever.
In the wake of the Vietnam War – the end of which was marked by news footage of US personnel and a select few Vietnamese collaborators being evacuated from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975 – the United States entered a prolonged period of decline when it came to its ability to embark on major military operations.
For all the massive destructive power in its arsenal, the Vietnamese had exposed US imperialism as a giant with feet of clay. The name given to this period of hard power retreat was the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and lasted from 1975 to 1991, when the US and an international coalition embarked on the First Gulf War to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait.
We are witnessing a similar period of US imperial decline now with regard to Washington’s inability to stage large-scale military operations. It arrived as a consequence of the failed occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which achieved nothing except the eruption of terrorism and extremism across the region, and by extension the world.
The huge resources expended have further crippled Washington’s imperial power, while the fragmentation of social cohesion in the US itself – witnessed by the brutal treatment of the nation’s poor, migrants, and blacks – reveals a society that is close to imploding. The parallels with the sixties and seventies are clear in this regard.
As far back as 2005, the Washington Post had identified this ‘Iraq syndrome.’ In an article exploring the record of then outgoing US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the newspaper asserted: “Whenever Rumsfeld finally packs up his office at the Pentagon, he will leave behind an even more burdensome Iraq syndrome – the renewed, nagging and sometimes paralyzing belief that any large-scale US military intervention abroad is doomed to practical failure and moral iniquity.”
Ten years later, with an Islamic version of the Khmer Rouge in the shape of the so-called Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) running rampant across Syria and Iraq, the present administration is reduced to conducting a desultory and, up to this point, impotent, air campaign against IS, which continues growing and increasing its grip on territory in Syria and Iraq.
The complexities of the Middle East are well known. The presence of the bulk of the world’s energy reserves has ensured the region’s status as the frontline in the struggle for and against US hegemony. At the same time, the multiple ethnic, confessional, and tribal identities that crisscross the region have long ensured it remains a potential powder keg, ready to explode if exacerbated.
Such an explosion took place with the NATO air war against the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011. Intended to ensure the Libyan phase of the Arab Spring landed safely upon the shores of Western geopolitical interests, the toppling of Gaddafi instead opened the gates of hell out of which have poured tens of thousands of primeval fanatics whose bloodlust knows no bounds.
Washington and its European allies have been unable to control the spread of this fanaticism, which has grown with the connivance of its regional allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the various Gulf monarchies that together make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Obama’s decision not to proceed with planned airstrikes against the Syrian government in the aftermath of an alleged chemical weapons attack against a rebel-controlled Damascus suburb in 2013 left his credibility in tatters. Perceiving the president as weak, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been acting in pursuit of their own agendas, which means doing whatever it takes to stem Shia Iranian influence, and/or working to reassert Sunni domination region-wide.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a virtue out of defying the Obama administration’s attempts to broker a settlement of the intractable Palestinian question, while his ongoing efforts to undermine the administration’s negotiations with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program are a studied insult to the US leader’s authority. The Saudis and their Turkish counterparts, we also know, have recently agreed a joint strategy coordinating their energies and resources in striving to bring down the Assad regime. Growing nervous over the popularity and sway of IS within the global jihadist movement, both governments have swung behind their own preferred jihadist groups – "The Army of Conquest" – as a counterweight and proxy in the conflict.
Compounding the unraveling of Washington’s ability to project its imperial power is the nonsensical and desperate attempt to effect Russia’s compliance with its writ in Eastern Europe, which involves the imposition of sanctions and attempts to isolate the country politically and culturally.
The dollar has been underpinning US hard power and hegemony since the Second World War, exploiting its role as the world’s international reserve currency. But US currency hegemony is also in the process of being contested with the creation in October 2014 of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) by China as a counterweight to the IMF. Interestingly, among the 20 nations who’ve since joined this new international investment bank is the UK, much to the consternation of its Washington ally.
The AIIB joins the New Development Bank that China also set up last year in partnership with Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. Also known as the BRICS bank, it took its place alongside the pre-existing Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) development bank as part of a new global financial infrastructure operating independently of Washington. The SCO has also established its own currency reserve to help cushion its members against financial shocks or crises, such as the one that emanated from the US financial system in 2008.
Taken together, we are able to chart the relative decline of US hegemony and unipolarity, unfolding economically, geopolitically, culturally and militarily. The dangers as this process unfolds are evident in the spread of extremism and fanaticism as regional allies increasingly pursue their own agendas, regardless of how damaging to US interests they may be in terms of sowing instability.
As with the Roman Empire centuries before it, Washington is learning that the only thing permanent in this world is impermanence, especially imperial power resting on foundations of hypocrisy and injustice.
John Wight, RT