The series of Arab uprisings during the past two months have yet to complete their destruction of what, since shortly after World War II, had seemed a fixed oppressive political order in the Muslim states of the Middle East and Central Asia, overseen by the United States.
Its good friends or formal allies were the King of Saudi Arabia, the Shah of Iran, the post-Nasser leaders of Egypt, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the monarchs of Morocco and Jordan, the emirs of the Gulf, the president-for-life of Tunisia, and the successive presidents and generals who came to power in Pakistan. Yemen did not yet feature on the political map. Where are they now? Better yet, where will their successors be tomorrow? What American influence will survive? Events since January have destroyed the United States' geopolitical overlordship of the region. Possibly the gods of history are imposing a lesson.
Events have also combined with Israel's obdurate expansionism and commitment to the idea that "the Arabs" only understand violence, and, with the new Palestinian plan to demand from United Nations General Assembly recognition as an independent state under illegal foreign occupation, to undermine what Israel's leaders have assumed was the unassailable security provided by their influence over the American Congress, and over American presidents since Richard Nixon.
I do not know the familiarity of Barack Obama, or certainly that of the commander of NATO, with classical English poetry. Thus Shelley: "'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!'" with its concluding lines, "Nothing beside remains: round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."
NATO never claimed Ozymandian rank but cannot now be seen as the effective agency of American foreign policy in the region, nor of European security for that matter, as it has been since 1949. In the absence of active American direction, it has demonstrated its lack of capacity for independent policy formulation, decision-making and efficient military action. In the Libyan operation, NATO has amounted to the improvisation of the two European members initially willing to fight, France and Britain, eventually increasing in number to fourteen NATO members plus Qatar, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.
Of the seventeen air forces active—as of last weekend—six were actually carrying out strikes against the forces of Moammar Qaddafi's campaign to put down the insurrection. Britain alone—as far as we know—has senior training officers with the rebels. Not an imposing showing for NATO. And not producing results, at this writing.
Alvaro de Vasconcelos, head of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said on April 19 that saving Misrata from siege by Qaddafi's forces would "almost certainly" precipitate the end of the regime, "trigger an anti-Qaddafi uprising in Tripolitania and thus force a political solution." Against the background of a report of American efforts to find an African refuge for Qaddafi, Vasconcelos said that "a political solution based on the leadership of another member of the Qaddafi clan is totally unrealistic."
Valid or not as a forecast of events, this EU official's comment displays the degree to which American and West European attitudes diverge. France and Britain tried in 1999, after the fiasco of the Balkan wars, to set up a EU intervention force of sixty thousand, but nothing serious followed. That was inevitable. France wanted European independence, and Britain would not let loose from Washington. NATO's members had widely divergent strategic interests, and few wanted to fight, or pay, to meet any threat short of one to their survival. They are not interested in fighting other people's wars or in establishing other people's democracies. Nothing the public has seen in Iraq or Afghanistan has encouraged them to believe this is a useful effort or will succeed.
The French and British have probably learned the lesson that they and their European neighbors must look after themselves. Washington probably has had its poor judgment of NATO confirmed. Germany has had its prudent pacifism confirmed. France longs for a DeGaulle to lead France, and maybe Europe, should bad times come.
What everyone should have learned is that nations and peoples do best to look after themselves—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq included—just as the Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, and even the Libyans and Palestinians are now doing. Even Americans might try it and give up global conquest. Think what good things could be done with an American budget that invested at home, instead of conducting trillion-dollar wars abroad.
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).