In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy remarked, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Any student of history will attest to the veracity of such a statement, as can anyone who has been following the images on the TV screen these past few weeks.
In a matter of days, the flames of revolution that swept one dictator out of power in Tunisia (of all unlikely places), have leaped across North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula to engulf other Arab regimes in Cairo, Amman, and Sana’a.
Yet even as I am riveted by the seemingly endless courage of protesters in Tahrir Square, I am also nonetheless fascinated by my own government’s clumsy ability to speak out of two sides of its mouth, a trick that is actually not so difficult when one has two faces.
The mythology of the Benevolent Empire is as old as empire itself. In the ancient Near East, the suzerainty treaty (a covenant made between a more powerful empire and a smaller vassal state) extolled the empire’s ruler as a “father” to the client kingdom and emphasized his benevolent acts on their behalf– all the while with his feet on their necks and their hands trembling with tribute. The Greeks and Brits brought “civilization” (theirs) and the Romans “peace” (the peace after an atomic blast), all with a heavy price tag of brutal repression and rapacious exploitation.
As I remarked in a previous blog, America has always been a nation tragically at odds with itself. It is why so much of the world both admires and hates us with equal intensity. We speak words that make the world dream– of liberty and sacred human rights– but our ambassadors are not Jefferson and Lincoln. They are Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Exxon-Mobil, Caterpillar, and Blackwater.
Even as they yearn for the freedoms we appear to enjoy, Egyptian protesters can more easily appreciate the irony, since they have only to look up to see American-made F-16s buzzing their assembled masses. Along with the tanks and tear gas canisters aimed at them, and the software used to maintain the massive Egyptian security state, all have one thing in common. They all bear the “Made in USA” label. Ironic? Yes. But that is how empire works, how it has always worked: creating an illusory prosperity that is the envy of the world, yet one that is ultimately unsustainable because it can exist only through the sweat of slaves and the cruel oppression and plunder of distant lands.
The lust for empire also makes strange bedfellows, causing us to bed down with dictators as brutal as Turkmenistan’s Berdymuhammedov (by the time you’ve pronounced it, you’ve been detained) or Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema (ah, what we won’t do for oil). As for Mubarak all those billions we shoveled his way came back to U.S. corporations in the form of defense contracts, just another form of corporate welfare for the boys. No wonder he’s stayed in power so long. Good Ol’ Ike warned us of the dangerous confluence of military and industrial power and its unwarranted influence to determine policy. But I suppose it is only now, perhaps too late, that we are finally beginning to understand what he meant.
We ask one dictator to leave (ah, democracy?) but support one of his henchmen to succeed– one who lived in the shadows overseeing his country’s ugly security apparatus, including the so-called “black sites” (places of rendition and torture). So the “reform” and “change” we support amounts to a mere reshuffling of the same deck. Imagine if the Allies had asked Hitler to resign in favor of Himmler. One is reminded of the unrepentant Augustine, who prayed, “Lord, give me chastity and continence– but not yet!” Happily, the Egyptian people are not so gullible as the American public.
Empire is all a brutal illusion. And it is during such crises as this in our foreign policy that the humanitarian mask slips somewhat comically, and we see the true face of empire in all its hideousness– that when push comes to shove, all our talk about democracy and human rights is mere cant, a humbug, the pious pecksniffery used to anesthetize our victims, including a home audience living in a fool’s paradise.
If we have any sympathy for those struggling for freedom in the Middle East, the most decent thing we can do is to wake up, to understand what we have become as a nation, and how we all help to support this system of empire. Cheap oil. Cheap clothing. Cheap food. And Security (read, freedom for U.S. corporations to pillage unmolested). God has not blessed us with these things because we are good. They are the end products of empire, squeezed out of a system of oppression and violence, then aseptically sprayed and washed for home consumption.
And once we have reached this epiphany, to stop participating in the pantomime and to join the real world of adults who are standing tall and marching against the tide.