Empires In Decline
By Michael Klare
19 October, 2006,
Foreign Policy in Focus
The common wisdom circulating
in Washington these days is that the United States is too bogged down
in Iraq to consider risky military action against Iran or—God
forbid—North Korea. Policy analysts describe the U.S. military
as “over-burdened” or “stretched to the limit.”
The presumption is that the Pentagon is telling President Bush that
it can't really undertake another major military contingency.
Added to these pessimistic
assessments of U.S. military capacity is the widespread claim that a
“new realism” has taken over in the administration's upper
reaches, that cautious “realists” like Condoleezza Rice
have gained the upper hand over fire-breathing neoconservatives. Ergo:
No military strike against Iran or North Korea.
But I'm not buying any of
Just as an empire on the
rise, like the United States on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, is
often inclined to take rash and ill-considered actions, so an empire
on the decline, like the British and French empires after World War
II, will engage in senseless, self-destructive acts. And I fear the
same can happen to the United States today, as we, too, slip into decline.
The decline of an empire
can be a hard and painful thing for the affected imperial elites. Those
who are used to commanding subservience and respect from their subjects
and from lesser powers are often ill-prepared to deal with their indifference
and contempt. Even harder is overcoming the long-inbred assumption that
one's vassals are inferior—mentally, morally, and otherwise. The
first malady makes the declining elites extraordinarily sensitive to
perceived slights or insults from their former subjects; the second
often leads elites to overestimate their own capabilities and to underestimate
those of their former subjects—an often fatal error. The two misjudgments
often combine to produce an extreme readiness to strike back when a
perceived insult coincides with a (possibly deceptive) military superiority.
The Suez Blunder
One of the most spectacular
examples of such miscalculation in modern times—and an especially
illuminating one—was the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. The crisis
began in July 1956 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, angry
at the West's failure to support construction of the Aswan High Dam
on the Nile, nationalized the Suez Canal, then owned principally by
a British-French company and long regarded as a pre-eminent symbol of
the British Empire.
A reasonable Anglo-French
response to Nasser's move might have been to negotiate a dignified turnover
of the canal (as President Carter did in 1977 with the Panama Canal,
thereby removing a major irritant in U.S.-Latin America relations).
But no: it was beneath their dignity to negotiate with rabble like Nasser.
Instead, with images of imperial grandeur still fresh in their minds,
the British and French embarked on October 29, 1956 upon an invasion
of Egypt (wisely bringing in the Israelis for a little backup).
Then the second malady kicked
in. From what can be reconstructed today, it never occurred to British
and French leaders that their former subjects would even consider putting
up any resistance to modern European armies, and so victory would occur
swiftly. Instead, it was pure debacle. The British and French were far
too few on the ground to win any military victories, and the Egyptians
didn't cry “uncle” at the first sight of the Union Jack.
Desperately, the British
and French—who had first dismissed any need for American help—pleaded
with then-President Eisenhower for American assistance. But Ike wasn't
in a mood to help. Having seen which way the wind was blowing in the
Middle East, he decided it was better to abandon his NATO allies than
support the old imperialists in a battle with pan-Arab nationalism (which
might then choose to align with Moscow). And so the British and French
were forced to withdraw in utter humiliation.
Much in this extraordinary
episode bears on the situation in Washington today. Once again, a former
subject state—in this case, Iran—is thumbing its nose at
its former imperial overlords—Britain and the United States (which
together put the megalomaniacal Shah in power there in 1953). Once again,
extreme discomfort and distress has been the result. Yes, I recognize
that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology poses a different sort of
danger than Egypt's seizure of the Suez Canal (though to hear the British
tell it, that was no less of a strategic peril).
But there nevertheless remains
a symbolic aspect to this whole crisis that cannot be entirely ignored.
A once subservient Third World nation confronts the Greatest Power the
World Has Ever Known on something approaching equal terms. It is precisely
these sorts of circumstances that are likely to trigger rash, ill-considered
action on the part of the declining power.
“How dare they stand
up to us in that way?” British and French officials must have
been muttering to themselves back in 1956. And: “We'll teach them
a thing or two!—Just you watch!”
“How dare they stand
up to us in that way?” White House officials must be saying to
one another in private today. And: “We'll teach them a thing or
two!—Just you watch!”
But what about the problem
of the over-stretched U.S. military and all those American soldiers
now bogged down in Iraq? This is where the second post-imperial malady
comes in. Yes, American ground troops are bogged down in Iraq, but American
air and sea power, currently under-utilized in the Iraq conflict, can
be used to cripple Iranian military capabilities with minimum demand
on U.S. ground forces. Despite the Israeli inability to emasculate Hezbollah
with airpower during the Lebanon fighting last summer, American air
and naval officers, I suspect, believe that they can inflict punishing
damage on the Iranians with airpower alone, and do so without suffering
significant casualties in return. I also suspect that well-connected
neoconservatives and, no doubt, Vice President Cheney and Secretary
of Defense Rumsfeld are whispering this message into the ear of President
And what about all the forms
of retaliation we might expect from the Iranians, like an upsurge in
Shiite disorder in Iraq and chaos in the oil markets? These and other
likely Iranian responses are also said to be deterring a U.S. military
strike. But the Iranians will be incapable of such coordinated action
after the U.S. Air Force subjects them to Shock and Awe, and anyway
there are contingency plans in place to deal with the fallout. Or so
say the neocons, I would imagine.
So I believe that the common
wisdom in Washington regarding military action against Iran is wrong.
Just because American forces are bogged down in Iraq, and Condoleezza
Rice appears to enjoy a bit more authority these days, does not mean
that “realism” will prevail at the White House. I suspect
that the response of declining British and French imperial elites when
faced with provocative acts by a former subject power in 1956 is a far
more accurate gauge of what to expect from the Bush administration today.
The impulse to strike back
must be formidable. Soon, I fear, it will prove irresistible.
Michael T. Klare
is a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College,
a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, and the author of Blood and Oil:
The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported
Petroleum (Metropolitan Books, 2004).
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