The flagging empire
Paul William Roberts is the Toronto-based author of several books on the Middle East. His most recent, A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq (Raincoast), has just appeared in paperback .

Saturday, September 10, 2005 Updated at 2:07 AM EDT
From Saturday's Globe and Mail

All the television pictures from New Orleans of water with people and houses under it certainly captured the world's attention. What the world attended to, however, wasn't so much the feeble efforts to relieve the city as the startling and unfamiliar sight of, as one of my Iraqi e-pen pals puts it, "so much terrible poverty in a country so much rich."

Many of the people being winched off rooftops did not even own television sets, let alone cars or telephones, so it is hardly surprising they had made no plans to escape until their shacks were under 20 feet of water.

Another Iraqi pen pal was disturbed by the sight of the looters: "Some I see, they look not much human, like wild men." Some were also cops.
But, as a rehabilitated looter myself - I was in Baghdad two years ago when it fell to the invading Americans - I am in no position to judge a little petty pilfering, particularly when the perps have just lost everything they owned.

All in all, the general feeling I derived from these ripples of Arab thought was that, in terms of peeling the veneer of society back to reveal what lurks beneath the codes of law and those who enforce them, the Iraqi capital comported itself a good deal better than New Orleans did.

At least under Saddam Hussein, everyone knew the government lied to them about everything all the time, and also that the media were merely a wing of the regime. Americans may just be waking up to a similar realization, since, thus far at least, no one has told them just how disastrous this disaster is going to be for the nation. You can always tell when the neocons are rattled by some event: They accuse anyone discussing the corporate or government role in it of playing politics with human tragedy. This, of course, is not something they would ever do.

An Egyptian friend of mine was stunned at the inadequacy of the U.S. government's immediate response to the flooding: "They have no trouble sending their armies to the outer reaches of the globe to invade or bomb, so why is it so hard to get help to their own people?" Poor as it is, he added, his country would have thrown all it had into the rescue of its citizens.

Of course, being a military dictatorship, Egypt also would have found this a lot easier to do. But the fact remains that members of the U.S. Congress knew all about the disaster potential in New Orleans, so why didn't someone push the issue harder?

Clearly, in the Rumsfeldian system, the flooding of New Orleans was a "known known." CNN's "meteorologists" may not have realized the real danger lay in the sea surge after the storm - they concluded the city was safe the moment the winds had passed. But an article in the October, 2001, issue of Scientific American described the city as "a disaster waiting to happen."

According to writer Mark Fischetti, "scientists at Louisiana State University, who have modelled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die."

What were the chances that a hurricane strong enough to wreak such havoc would actually occur in the New Orleans area? Better than good, a question of "when," not "if," various authorities told Mr. Fischetti. Therefore, all the more puzzling to Scientific American was the most unscientific response this incipient crisis had received from America's rulers: "Thus far, however, Washington has turned down appeals for substantial aid."

And by October, 2001, the government wasn't about to change its mind. The horror inflicted upon New York City and Washington four years ago tomorrow had pretty much guaranteed that for quite some time "substantial aid" would be going to something unscientific, though very American: the War on Terror and vengeance for 9/11.

In hindsight, the $14-billion price tag on the plan that had been drawn up for saving Louisiana's coastline and the Mississippi's delta now must look like a bargain to a Congress that has agreed to $50-billion in aid alone. It is safe to say that relocating more than a million people, along with the loss of the nation's largest port, and the other economic consequences from Hurricane Katrina will bankrupt the United States.

Or would, if anyone dared to call in the country's debts, which now exceed any number of dollars one can write meaningfully - particularly since no one seems to know just what a trillion is anyway. It's a known unknown. The unknown part is what happens to a nation that owes this much money: No other one has ever racked up such a tab.

Even so, in the eyes of the world, the emperor stands naked. Monday's issue of London's The Independent noted: "We could be witnessing a significant moment in America. Hurricane Katrina has revealed some uncomfortable truths about the world's richest and most powerful nation. The catastrophe in New Orleans exposed shocking inequalities - both of wealth and race - and also the relative impotence of the federal authorities when faced with a large-scale disaster. Many Americans are beginning to ask just what sort of country they are living in. There is a sense that the struggle for the soul of America is gathering pace."

There is also suddenly a sense that the American Empire is in decline, that the only successful wars it has ever waged are the ones against the environment and its own people.

There have been many other omens of such a decline this year.

A few days before Katrina struck, for example, tiny Uzbekistan requested that the United States close its military base in the former Soviet republic and remove its troops within six months. This came just a month after a body called the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) asked for a timeline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Central Asia.

Originally composed of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the SCO was created in 1996, admitted Uzbekistan in June, 2001, and more recently granted observer status to Pakistan and India . Thus, it embraces a quarter of the world's population and dominates the heartland of what Anglo-American strategists used to call the world island. Although the SCO was formed as an economic union, the joint Sino-Russian manoeuvres scheduled for later this year are beginning to make it look more and more like a military one.

So, a good measure of the blundering incompetence of the current administration in Washington is the fact that the SCO has achieved in less than five years what neither 50 years of the Cold War nor any previous U.S. government was able to manage: a nuclear-armed military alliance between Russia and China.

It has never been a secret in the Pentagon that U.S. military commanders view China as their ultimate challenge and most dangerous foe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, some economic analysts believe that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was prompted by very generous oil concessions given to both China and Russia in deals brokered under the old Baathist regime. And as we have seen, the principles of American capitalism crumble swiftly in the face of a prospect such as that of China buying a majority share in one of the largest U.S. oil companies.

A Chinese conglomerate was merely playing by the rules of a free market when, two months ago, it attempted to acquire a majority stake in Unocal Corp. Yet alarm bells sounded all over Capitol Hill, with voices declaring the proposed takeover of the company, founded 115 years ago as Union Oil of California, a "national security" issue. Probably to contain the damage such a glimpse of U.S. financial vulnerability would cause, Unocal was quickly sold off to Chevron, another U.S. oil conglomerate.

As well, Washington's ongoing beef with Hugo Chavez - summarized with irreducible precision by TV preacher Pat Robertson's recent call for the assassination of the Venezuelan President - chiefly concerns his sale of oil to China. As the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, Venezuela has chosen to do more business with China than it does with the United States although, after the Robertson fatwa, Mr. Chavez did offer to sell oil at reduced prices to America's poor.

China's economic growth rates terrify both Japan, which has been persuaded to remilitarize, and America, which did the persuading. The Central Intelligence Agency's National Intelligence Council predicts that China's gross domestic product will equal that of Britain this year, Germany in 2009, Japan in 2017 and the United States by 2042.

However, Shahid Javed Burki, former vice-president of the World Bank's China Department and a former Pakistani finance minister, forecasts that China will probably have enough purchasing power to surpass the United States as the world's largest economy this year.

The inability of established powers to adjust to new centres of power emerging, or reemerging, has been the cause of all the bloodiest wars over the past two centuries. Besides losing control of its major companies, the problem of Chinese economic primacy, for the United States, rests in the possibility that China may gain control of the dollar.Since president Richard Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard nearly 40 years ago, its value has been unofficially pegged to oil - hence the need for control of the world's largest oil fields. In order to keep the value of the yuan down - and hence keep their exports attractively cheap - the Chinese have been buying dollars and dollar bonds on a massive scale. The worry is that a sudden decision to convert dollar holdings into, say, euros would send the U.S. currency into free fall on international markets.

There are analysts who believe that Saddam Hussein's greatest mistake in his dealings with the United States was trying to persuade the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to shift the oil price from dollars to euros. He had already started pricing Iraqi oil in euros and also had converted the huge fund held by the United Nations in the oil-for-food program into the European currency.

Before the invasion of Iraq, OPEC apparently was considering whether to start trading in dual currencies, and some economists believe that an announcement like this would send the value of a dollar falling by up to 40 per cent. By gaining control of the Iraqi oil fields -the world's second richest after Saudi Arabia - the United States has effectively prevented an assault on the dollar from that direction.

But U.S. attempts to drive up the value of the yuan, along with China's attempts to gain a foothold in the U.S. stock market, as well as its massive dollar holdings, would suggest that a full-scale economic war is already under way. Add to this President George W. Bush's insistence on the remilitarizing of a Japan already in severe decline and you have the next real war too. Oil is not just big business; it is the biggest business there is. It not only fuels the engines of a modern industrial state, its byproducts are also a mainstay of the pharmaceutical, plastics and several other key industries that are the pillars of major Western economies. This is the sole reason for America's "interests" in the Persian Gulf region and for that area's "strategic importance."

Thus, it is curious that we are not more aware of the importance placed upon relatively recent discoveries of vast deposits of high-grade crude around the Caspian Sea. Indeed, a cynic might say the Bush administration used the September, 2001, attacks as an excuse to pursue its thwarted plan for a pipeline taking oil from the Caspian through Afghanistan to the Pakistani port of Karachi.

When the Taliban were still in charge of Afghanistan, their representatives attended meetings, sometimes in the United States, on the proposed pipeline, upon which, furthermore, Pakistan's economic future to a large extent depends. But the Taliban would not agree to the political and economic conditions the Americans felt were necessary, such as ending support for foreign terrorist organizations.

It was, therefore, convenient at the very least for America to have a reasonably valid reason to attack the country and replace its regime with one led by Hamid Karzai, a former consultant with Unocal, the very company wishing to build the pipeline, and, of course, the one the Chinese tried to buy.

China also has plans of its own to build a pipeline for Caspian Sea oil, heading through, yes, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The U.S. base in Uzbekistan was principally used for operations in Afghanistan, but it could easily have become a problem for the Chinese pipeline. China views the presence of U.S. military in Uzbekistan in much the same way as America viewed the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

U.S. reasons for attacking Afghanistan were not, however, as valid as they perhaps seemed to be at the time. After all, the Sept. 11 hijackers were from Egypt and, mostly, Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan, which, though predominantly Muslim, is not an Arab country.

The argument that the Taliban supported al-Qaeda ideologically and, perhaps, materially doesn't hold much water, either. Numerous other countries, or factions within them, including influential factions within Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, opposed aspects of U.S. imperialism in their regions and have been revealed as sources of al-Qaeda funding, so the singling out of Afghanistan was, at the very least, disingenuous.

The stated reasons for next attacking Iraq have been exposed for some time now as shameless lies and a gross violation of international laws, yet - according to the polls - many Americans are still under the impression it was the right thing to do. This is largely due to the inability of U.S. media to tackle the issue of both national and their own culpability in the commission of crimes against humanity. But the proper role of modern media in times of war is far from clear, particularly when so much of their normal function has been devoted to forms of propaganda.

To the real reasons for the attacks launched in revenge for 9/11, we also must add the nature of al-Qaeda itself. The term in Arabic means "the base," and refers to a database kept by the CIA of all the mujahedeen it trained to fight the Soviet Russians during their invasion of Afghanistan. One of these so-called "Afghan Arabs" was Osama bin Laden.

The intelligence agency was well aware that such a training program could easily blow back - and apparently it did. But rather than admit the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were carried out by people they had actually trained in the art of covert operations, the government threw up a smokescreen around everything.

Why do that - and mislead everyone about the nature of al-Qaeda, which is at best a loose affiliation of extremists, not the vast cohesive entity the War on Terror wants us to believe?

"Leaders like wars because wars remind people they need leaders," Plato wrote 2,500 years ago. In the 16th century, Machiavelli said a leader was better off being feared by friends and enemies alike than he was being loved. More recently, George Orwell's terrifyingly prophetic Nineteen Eighty-Four posited a totalitarian global superpower engaged in perpetual war against a constantly changing enemy.

The principles behind a strong state and its government have never been a mystery, just as proponents of personal liberty and libertarian conservatives are agreed on the necessity for government to remain small and local, if people are to retain the freedoms granted by democratic constitutions.

Canada and the Scandinavian countries are among the few that have managed to achieve anything approaching democracy's ideals for a peaceful egalitarian society. That we are not more aware of this is a sign of the complacency that precedes disaster. And such a disaster, if it comes, will arise from the consequences of bordering an imperial superpower undergoing the death throes of republicanism and heading steadily toward oligarchic totalitarianism.The trouble with democracy is that no one has really believed it can work. Plato's ideal republic was scarcely egalitarian - but it did not pretend to be otherwise. Those entitled to a vote in it amounted to the Athenian oligarchy. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose republican ideals infused both the American and French revolutions, stated openly that "barbarous peoples" whose countries were incapable of economic growth were doomed to remain impervious to politics themselves, let alone be capable of anything but despotic rule. "Freedom is not a fruit of every climate," he explained.

He admitted that, "if there were a nation of Gods, it would govern itself democratically," but added that "government so perfect, is not suited to men."Rousseau's idea, ideals and even language echo in the documents of America's Founding Fathers. Yet, when Thomas Jefferson drafted the original version of the Declaration of Independence, citing truths that were "self-evident," including that "all men were created equal and independent" (modified to just "equal" in the final version), he must surely have exempted the 187 slaves he owned from such equality and independence?

And presumably none of those who signed the Declaration believed that America's native peoples enjoyed "certain inalienable rights," such as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," since they were well aware of the genocide that had been under way since the 17th century and would eventually claim more than 10 million lives.

It is, furthermore, a safe assumption that no one in today's U.S. government thinks, as the Declaration's second paragraph states, it is a citizen's duty to rise up and overthrow any form of rule that becomes an impediment to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."Similarly, the U.S. Constitution, so often cited as though relevant to contemporary America, is in fact a document very much limited to its place and time. Those Americans who read its opening, "We the people," today cannot help but hear it refer to a population of about 200 million, but to whom does it actually refer?

This is, in fact, also the question being asked in Louisiana and Mississippi today. The textual evidence reveals that "we" can only refer to those who have signed the document -the representatives of a tiny land-owning elite, who may have questioned the rights of the British Crown, but never questioned their own. Nobody else seriously questioned them either, since it was assumed that politicians needed to be educated men, and, 240 years ago, education everywhere on Earth was a signal privilege of the few able to afford it.

"The president," says the Constitution, will be "Commander in Chief of the army, navy and militias." George Washington signed the document as the nation's first president. However, he was already commander in chief of the army, so this clause would not have bothered him unduly, nor did it make anyone else wonder if they were signing a recipe for military dictatorship down the road. The reference to "militias" reveals that the American standing army was minuscule back then, relying entirely on militias in the event of a serious threat. The "right to bear arms" clause also relates exclusively to the militias, and, combined, the two clauses show why there was no reason to fear a military coup.

Had the Founders been told this document would one day serve the greatest military power in history, or that there would come a day when handguns were the No. 1 cause of death for young men 18 to 30 years ago, they no doubt would have made considerable changes. As it was, though, they merely addressed their own situation in the most pragmatic manner possible.

Problems with these founding documents arose only when generations of schoolchildren were educated to believe in their literal truth, a practice that has caused as much conflict in American society as that of believing in the Bible's literal truth has caused the world. George Kennan, who died on March 17 at the age of 101, was, as head of the U.S. State Department's Policy Planning Staff, a chief architect of postwar foreign policy, largely responsible for the Cold War and for creating the Central Intelligence Agency. He was, all the same, a remarkably brilliant, insightful and clear-thinking observer of the world as it is, not the world as we'd like it to be.

Social critic Noam Chomsky has unfairly called him an "incredible villain," quoting out of context from a very long, top-secret memorandum Mr. Kennan sent to the Secretary of State in 1948:

"We have about 50 per cent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 per cent of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming we need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction."

Prof. Chomsky fails to appreciate that Mr. Kennan also presents a rare opportunity to observe the thinking behind many of America's foreign-policy decisions since then because, in later life, he was openly apologetic about much of what he had done. He regarded atomic weapons as so dangerous that no nation ought to own them, and deplored the fact that the CIA, which had been designed, he said, solely to counter the threat of the Soviet spy agency, was allowed to continue after the Soviet Union collapsed.

On China, too, he was extraordinarily succinct, urging U.S. leaders to stop preaching to Beijing about democracy, since "even if they created a democracy, it wouldn't resemble ours."

Something of an isolationist, Mr. Kennan believed, wherever possible, in living and letting live. He had determined that, to go to war with America using conventional weapons, a nation needed a heavy industry able to design and build some kind of powerful amphibious craft - since that alone would permit invasion.

Only five countries, he stated confidently, could ever pose such a threat: Britain, Germany, Japan, Israel and Russia. Since the war, four have always been close allies - the Coalition of the Willing - and all of America's energies were focused on Soviet Russia, until it vanished into chaos during the Reagan presidency. (The five-enemies theory is said to be one reason for the Pentagon's shape.)

Mr. Kennan also did something else that is still immeasurably useful: He identified two distinct strains in U.S. political thinking that, at the risk of over-simplifying them, boil down basically to his viewpoint and that of those who oppose it.

He likens his own thinking to that of the Founding Fathers: straightforward, pragmatic, focused on the job at hand. The opposition he characterizes as "day-dreamers," evangelists for the creed of American exceptionalism, who believe the United States is a fulfilment of prophecy, and that it thus has a mission to show the world the paths to freedom.

He blames most of America's foreign-policy blunders on such misguided thinking, believing also that it was to blame for the decay of cities and society in general. Americans had been deprived of seeing the fruits of their tax dollars in the form of free health care and education - things that Europeans took for granted - since the money had been squandered on pointless foreign wars and imperial adventures.

These two strains have collided constantly, with one punishing the other whenever possible. The exceptionalists, however, have the edge because their terms of fiscal profligacy in overseas wars and weapons development can damage the economy beyond any simple repair.

Mr. Kennan didn't like the invasion of Iraq ("political consequences disastrous . . . no plan to deal with the ensuing chaos inside Iraq"), but as far as he was concerned, things had really begun to fall apart during the Reagan presidency (1981-89). His five-enemies theory stressed, above all, keeping the potential enemies as friends. The collapse of Soviet Russia offered the possibility of bringing the sole existing enemy in from the cold, yet the opportunity was not seized wholeheartedly, and eventually it was lost.

Money that could have helped Russia rebuild its shattered economy and social structures was instead diverted into weapons development and other schemes designed to make the Chinese realize they were next. This forced Beijing to spend money it did not possess on an arms buildup of its own, and also may have inadvertently pushed China's economy into the overdrive that has made it little short of an economic miracle today.

Every sinologist in Washington, however, knows full well that China is not expansionist and has no history of imperial acquisition. After times of weakness, Chinese rulers have merely striven to regain the original boundaries of the traditional Chi'in state, the oldest political union on Earth.

This is why Washington is always careful not to deny the possibility that renegade Taiwan will one day be returned. It is why the annexation of Tibet was never seriously challenged. It is why Hong Kong was returned after the British lease ran out in 1999.

Despite the rhetoric, historic patterns of behaviour are deeply respected in politics - a game China has played continuously for nearly 5,000 years, and at which it is a master. While it will generally not attack unless threatened, it will defend itself fiercely. That is what we can see happening now.

The Department of Homeland Security, along with the Patriot Act, has effectively suspended the rule of law in the United States - citizens can now be searched or arrested without a warrant, imprisoned without trial, tried by secret military tribunal, tortured or executed in secrecy. Their phones can be tapped, mail read, Internet monitored, and what they read at or borrow from the library can be analyzed for signs of deviancy. The guarantees of personal liberty in the Constitution have been trampled over.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 people have been detained or harassed under the Patriot Act, and precious few charges involving actual terrorism have been laid as a result. The fabric of American society has been torn to shreds without making Americans any safer.

It is possible, too, that al-Qaeda may largely be a creation of the permanent government that lies behind the passing show and changing pageants of the one that's elected. For the Pentagon, CIA-FBI, and other non-elected institutions amount to a bureaucratic monolith that governs without consent, since it provides advisers to the elected rulers and information to the advisers - all of which can make the job of being president easy or impossible, depending on whom is in the White House. It is not what the Constitution envisaged.

Consider the following: In the mid-fifties, president Dwight D. Eisenhower was informed of a growing hostility toward America among ordinary Arab citizens across the Middle East. The cause of this hostility was a perception that the United States supported brutal, repressive regimes in the area and, hypocritically, cared nothing for the political aspirations of the people.

This perception was hard to counter, the president learned, largely because it was accurate. The CIA added that America was, however, following the correct course of action in supporting status quo regimes in the Middle East, since these were the only kind of governments that could reliably safeguard U.S. interests in the region. The "interests," of course, were oil.

Flash forward to the 1970s and 1980s, where we find America now encouraging the repressive, brutal regimes it has been propping up to foster a resurgence of Islam, through building special religious universities and so on - the idea being to keep godless communism away from the oil with a religious renaissance. At the same time, the CIA was training Arab mujahedeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Bearing in mind that America also was humiliated by Iran's Islamic Revolution during same period, something seems out of place.

In his excellent 1998 book, Secrecy, the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan states that the collapse of Soviet Russia's social fabric, military, and economy was known among U.S. intelligence circles to be imminent as far back as the early seventies, and that this information was deliberately kept from the public, as well as from some presidents. He argues that money spent during the Reagan administration upon further weapons development and a continuance of the Cold War - which adds up to hundreds of billions - might have been spent on health care and education, were it not for the culture of secrecy prevailing in Washington.

Bearing this in mind, too, why did the CIA even feel it was necessary to train Afghan Arabs to fight the Soviets? Historically, the Afghans themselves have always been more than a match for any invader without outside help. With the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, the expulsion of its troops from Afghanistan was just a matter of time.

Put these anomalies together: Americans knew of Arab hostility in 1955 Yet they persisted in supporting hated regimes And even got them to promote Islam While training large numbers of devout Muslims in terrorist skills Even after being humiliated by a massive Islamic resurgence in Iran And experts on Islam had pointed out that the religion was populist in appeal and socialistic in nature.

Either you have an extraordinary jamboree of stupidity here, or you have the deliberate creation of a national demon to replace the defeated Soviet Red Peril, a new cause of public anxiety that justifies continued expenditure on arms, explains far-flung wars, and ultimately provides an excuse for the current terror and finances the invisible war against China.

It has to be one or the other.

Since the current administration contains a large number of the most reactionary elements from the old Reagan administration, my bet is on the latter explanation. As state papers from the Reagan years are gradually released under the Freedom of Information Act's 25-year limit, we may well find out some of the truth quite soon. Or we may not.