The end of the beginning

Posted on

As events in Iraq proceed at what now seems a breakneck pace, I thought it might be worth stepping back a moment to consider the imperial mission and ideology, such as it is, that lies behind our invasion of Iraq and the brutal mayhem of the present moment. As it happens, the latest of Immanuel Wallerstein’s bi-monthly essays has just arrived. Wallerstein is perhaps our leading scholar of American imperial decline, of, if he is right, an empire that began to skid too quickly to know what hit it.

The word “empire” has been on American — or at least media — lips for the last year or so; and whether among its admirers on the right or those who fear it on the left, it’s a word that manages to have such a monumental feel, such a lasting ring to it. American as the new Rome — and those Romans, didn’t they go on forever? America as the new Brits — and the sun took, what, a century to settle on them? And those old Chinese imperial dynasties — good lord, hundreds of years sometimes.

Unfortunately, I’m no historian of the Roman Empire, but some historian out there should remind us of the venal and the stupid emperors of ancient Rome. I say this because my own suspicion is that our imperial age — the age of the younger Bush — will prove to be a brief imperial age of stupidity. Where are the books about the stupid empires, the ones whose strategies proved catastrophic even to them, the ones that fell smack on their imperial faces?

Particularly in our world, a stupid empire is, of course, a staggering danger. It brings up — to me at least — images of this world, our world, in rubble, especially since we’re bringing our “gifts” and “civilizing mission” to the world not on the point of a bayonet, but via cluster bombs and MOABs, Tomahawk cruise missiles and bunker busters, cluster bombs and, if all goes according to plan, not so far into the future “mini-nukes.” Still, it’s important to consider where we are. Wallerstein, as the title of his essay, “The End of the Beginning.” suggests, believes that we are at the edge of a new and chaotic international moment, spurred on by the men (and woman) who took over our government in an essentially fraudulent election and then took it in long dreamed of but, to most Americans, completely unexpected directions in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In perhaps the most crucial sentence in his essay, he comments, “One cannot understand the politics of the U.S. hawks if one does not understand that they are not trying to save capitalism but to replace it with some other, even worse, system,” which he believes will only accelerate American decline. He, like Arundhati Roy whose piece I sent out yesterday, is not without hope that the administrators of an empire of stupidity can be defeated (though at what cost I hesitate to think).

I include as well a long but fascinating account by Robert Blecher, a historian from the University of Richmond, that appeared on Middle East Reports (Merip) online, on how this administration’s neocon supporters managed in the decade between Gulf Wars to radically switch ideological positions and become convinced supporters of bringing “democracy” (of a sort) to the Middle East and remaking the area top to bottom in the American image. The quotes he musters — from the same people a decade apart — are nothing short of startling.. We often forget that policy elites who set out to convince their people and others that the world is a certain way and must be dealt with a certain way usually have to convince themselves as well. We seldom consider the process by which this happens.

If you were to look at a few of the classic National Security Council documents of the early Cold War period — some of which are no less chilling and apocalyptic than anything the present administration could summon up — you can sense this process in a previous age. Men writing in top secret for each other about a bifurcated world that threatened to descend into a charnel house of nuclear destruction produced visions of a new, anticommunist world order that were clearly meant for themselves as they assumedly worked in a sort of self-intoxication of policy wonkism to bolster each other. There is a cultish aspect to all this when small groups of men work feverishly to convince each other that they and only they know how the world must be ordered, but the process by which they convince themselves is seldom considered. It has a little of the quality of madness.

Our present ideologues spent the last decade mustering strength, academic as well as governmental (as Blecher shows) and convincing themselves as much as anyone else that only one country was capable of creating a “new world order,” that it would have to dismantle the old international order (of which the UN is but a hated symbol) to do so, and that it could bring untold benefits to the very region that most had to be remade and so controlled, the world’s economic lifeline, the source of its energy bloodstream, the Middle East. If we are now dealing with a regime of true believers, in their years out of or at the edges of power, they managed, first and foremost, to indoctrinate themselves.

All those documents that reporters like the indefatigable Jim Lobe (who writes for the Foreign Policy in Focus website and Asia Times) continue to turn up from that lost decade (and from these years as well) might be thought of as a kind of endless, ongoing pep rally for the neocons themselves. By the way, if you want to look at Lobe’s latest pieces on the neocon project, check out: Neoconservatives Enlist Democrats for Post-war goals and Neocons in Trouble.

What’s particularly frightening here is that this imperial project was hatched among a tiny group of dreamers in a kind of imperial isolation, who came to believe that only aggressive war policies would bring benefits to America and, secondarily, the world. Richard Perle, now being criticized for his “ethics,” continues to be a significant figure among these men and Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate, has given us in a recent Boston Globe op-ed a picture of the world as he sees it (Perle’s new world order and ours). He writes in part:

“The Iraq adventure has swollen Perle’s arsenal of objectives for our new policies. He recently spoke to a Goldman Sachs conference and advised participants on the war and investment opportunities to come. The conference title tells it all: ”Implications of an Imminent War: Iraq Now. North Korea Next?”

“President Bush committed to this war long ago; he was determined to have it. But what is to follow? Perle rides high for the moment; his ideas and advocacy of them remain dominant. He has made it clear that the Iraq venture represents only the beginning of a bold new American policy, one which the United States will unilaterally enforce to impose its will.”


“The End of the Beginning”
By Immanuel Wallerstein
Commentary No. 110
April 1, 2003

At a turning-point in the Second World War, someone asked Winston Churchill whether the battle marked the beginning of the end. And he replied, famously, no, but it might be the end of the beginning. With the Iraq War, the world is marking the end of the beginning of the new world disorder that has replaced the world order
dominated by the United States from 1945 to 2001.

In 1945, the United States emerged from the Second World War with so much power in every domain that it quickly established itself as the hegemonic power of the world-system and imposed a series of structures on the world-system to ensure that it functioned according to the wishes of the United States. The key institutions in this construction were the United Nations Security Council, the World Bank and IMF, and the Yalta arrangements with the Soviet Union.

What enabled the United States to put these structures in place were three things: 1) the overwhelming edge in economic efficiency of U.S.-based productive enterprises; 2) the network of alliances – especially NATO and the US-Japan Security Treaty – which guaranteed automatic political support of U.S. positions in the U.N. and elsewhere, reinforced by an ideological rhetoric (the “free world”) to which the allies of the U.S. were as committed as it was; and 3) a preponderance in the military sphere based on U.S. control of nuclear weapons, combined with the so-called “balance of terror” with the Soviet Union which ensured that neither side in the so-called Cold War would use these nuclear weapons against the other.

This system worked very well at first. And the U.S. got what it wanted 95% of the time, 95% of the way. The only hitch was the resistance of those Third World countries not included in the benefits. The most notable cases were China and Vietnam. It was China’s entry into the Korean War that meant that the U.S. had to satisfy itself with a truce at the line of departure. And Vietnam in the end defeated the United States – a dramatic shock to the U.S. position politically, and economically as well (since it caused the end of the gold standard and fixed rates of exchange).

An even greater blow to U.S. hegemony was the fact that, after twenty years, both western Europe and Japan had made such strides economically that they became roughly the economic equals of the United States, which launched a long and continuing competition for capital accumulation between these three loci of world production and finance. And then came the world revolution of 1968, which fundamentally undermined the U.S. ideological position (as well as the spuriously oppositional Soviet ideological position).

The triple shock – the Vietnam war, the economic rise of western Europe and Japan, and the world revolution of 1968 – ended the period of easy (and automatic) U.S. hegemony in the world-system. U.S. decline began. The United States reacted to this change in the geopolitical situation by an attempt to slow down this decline as much as possible. We entered a new phase of U.S. world policy – that conducted by all U.S. presidents from Nixon to Clinton (including Reagan). The heart of this policy was three objectives: 1) maintaining the allegiance of western Europe and Japan by brandishing the continuing menace of the Soviet Union and offering some say in decision-making (so-called “partnership” via the Trilateral Commission and the G-7); 2) keeping the Third World militarily helpless by trying to stanch so-called “proliferation” of weapons of mass destruction; 3) trying to keep the Soviet Union/Russia and China off-balance by playing one off against the other.

This policy was moderately successful until the collapse of the Soviet Union, which pulled the rug from under the key first objective. It was this new post-1989 situation which permitted Saddam Hussein to risk invading Kuwait, and enabled him to hold the United States to a truce at the line of departure. It is this post-1989 geopolitical situation that permitted the collapse of so many states in the Third World and forced both the United States and western Europe to engage in basically unwinnable attempts to prevent or eliminate fierce civil wars.

There is one other element to put into this analysis, which is the structural crisis of the world capitalist system. I have no space here to argue the case, which is made in detail in my book Utopistics, or Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century, but I will resume here the conclusion. Because the system we have known for 500 years is no longer able to guarantee long-term prospects of capital accumulation, we have entered a period of world chaos – wild (and largely uncontrollable) swings in the economic, political, and military situations – which are leading to a systemic bifurcation – that is, essentially a world collective choice about the kind of new system the world will construct over the next fifty years. The new system will not be a capitalist system, but it could be one of two kinds: a different system that would be equally or more hierarchical and inegalitarian; or one that will be substantially democratic and egalitarian.

One cannot understand the politics of the U.S. hawks if one does not understand that they are not trying to save capitalism but to replace it with some other, even worse, system. The U.S. hawks believe that the U.S. world policy pursued from Nixon to Clinton is today unviable and can only lead to catastrophe. They are probably right that it is unviable. What they wish to substitute for it in the short run is a policy of premeditated interventionism by the U.S. military, as they are convinced that only the most macho aggressiveness will serve their interests. (I do not say serve U.S. interests, because I do not believe that it does.)

The successful attack by Osama bin Laden on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, propelled the U.S. hawks into a position where they, for the very first time, controlled the short-term policies of the U.S. government. They immediately pushed the necessity of a war on Iraq, seeing it as the first step in implementing their middle-term program. We have arrived at that point. The war has begun. That is why I call this the end of the beginning.

Where do we go from here? That depends in part on how the Iraq war plays itself out. One week into the war, it is clearly going less well than the hawks had hoped and anticipated. It seems we are likely to be in for a long, bloody, drawn-out war. The U.S. will probably (but not at all certainly) defeat Saddam Hussein. But its problems will only then mount. I detailed my views on these problems in my last commentary (Mar. 15, 2003) entitled “Bush Bets All He Has.”

The fact that it goes badly for the U.S. hawks will make them only more desperate. They are likely to try to push harder than ever on their agenda, which seems to have two short-term priorities: combat with potential Third World nuclear powers (North Korea, Iran, and others); and establishing an oppressive police apparatus inside the United States. They will need to win one more election to secure these two objectives. Their economic program seems to be one that will bankrupt the United States. Is this totally unintended? Or do they want to weaken some of the key capitalist strata within the United States, whom they may see as hindering the full implementation of their program?

What is clear at this point is that the world political struggle is sharpening. Those
who cling to the U.S. world policy of the 1970-2001 period – the moderate Republicans and the Democratic Establishment within the United States, but also in many ways the western European opponents of the hawks (for example, both the French and the Germans), may find themselves forced to make more painful political choices than any they have had to make up to now. By and large, this group has lacked middle-range clarity in their analysis of the world situation, and they have been hoping against hope that somehow the U.S. hawks will go away. They will not.
The hawks can however be defeated.

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at [email protected]; fax: 1-607-777-4315.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

“Free People Will Set the Course of History”
Intellectuals, Democracy and American Empire
By Robert Blecher
A Middle East Report Online Feature
March 2003

As the Bush administration struggled to find a justification for launching an attack on Iraq, churning out sketchy intelligence reports about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and links with al-Qaeda, Washington wordsmiths produced their own grist for the war mill: the prospect of a democratic pax americana in the Middle East. The importance of the pundits’ contribution to the war machine should not be underestimated. As the task of swaying public opinion grew more difficult, rhetoric around freedom and democracy has become ever more central. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, George W. Bush did not talk of remaking the Middle East. But in successive State of the Union addresses, commencement speeches, press conferences and televised appeals to the nation, Bush showed increasing faith in the ability of the US to extirpate tyranny and implant freedom in this agonized region.

To read more Blecher click here