History is an infallible teacher that does not tire of giving lessons to those willing to listen. It holds great value in its account and interpretation of events, and in the wisdom that lies beneath its ebbs and flows, its logic, and its vicious cycles. It is in permanent evolution; not stopping in times of progress nor in eras of regression.
The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is in a few days. Much has been said about this sad memory; books, movies, and documentaries have recounted its tragedy on the US and the entire world. A few days ago, Apple TV debuted its documentary “9/11: Inside the President's War Room” in which former President George W. Bush, his Vice-President Dick Cheney, and members of his administration recount the hours that followed the event and describe the extent to which the US was crippled with grief, fear, and shock.
The only problem is, this documentary was broadcast as the world is still recovering from the shock of the rushed and unjustified US withdrawal from Afghanistan, handing over the country to the Taliban and leaving behind tons of advanced weapons that could pose a serious threat to the world in the near future. US Army veterans are stunned and upset. US politicians, Republican and Democrat, are surprised. Washington’s major allies across the world, from Germany to France to the UK, its strongest and closest ally, are astounded. UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace was cited by The Guardian as commenting that “a superpower that is [also] not prepared to stick at something isn’t probably a superpower.”
A state can only impose its authority on rivals and raise confidence among allies with actions, not words. When empires overdo it, they give clear action signals to both rivals and allies. The former are pushed to impose an alternative global power, while the latter are driven to find political balances that provide the required protection and protects interests. The EU was one of the first to act, rushing to build an intervention force independent of US-led NATO.
The confusion that marked the withdrawal is apparent in the statements of officials and the decisions that accompanied the pullout, from the tons of weapons left behind, to the frenzied evacuations, to the explanations of the details and rationale of the withdrawal, as if it were a victory that needs no explanation or interpretation. However, that’s as far from the truth as it could be.
Those who read history understand the rise and fall of empires. In the wake of WWII, the US imposed itself on the international scene as the greatest empire the world has ever known. Its leadership of the world culminated after the fall of the USSR, only to begin its downward spiral of regression, withdrawal, and isolation a mere three decades later, which counts as a short period in history. As such, not only did Washington allow Russia to annex Crimea without a fight and intervene in the east of Ukraine, but it also gave it the greenlight to enter Syria, impose new power dynamics, and upend the global balance of power.
Many observers see the nuclear deal with Iran as an act of submission and defeat and believe that efforts to revive it are hampered because of weakness, not strength. The danger lies in that the US imperialist power does not want to undermine its interests with allies and pressures them into going down with it, only to abandon them later. A truly astonishing thing, and isn’t history astonishing?
Two decades is a short period to shift from President Bush’s “you are either with us or you are against us,” to this rushed, chaotic withdrawal. If constancy and continuity are a strength for states, imagine their impact on empires.
In his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, US diplomat Zbigniew Brzeziński cites Donald Puchala as saying: “Empires do not fall; rather, they fall apart, usually very slowly, though sometimes remarkably quickly.”
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.