The Taliban’s clever parody of American exceptionalism quickly went viral. They have every right to be proud of defeating the Empire single-handed. Ok, with help from their Pakistani, Saudi and Emirati friends, and in the final lap, the Empire itself as it abandoned state-of-the-art boy toys.
The photoshopped collage provides a neat set of bookends for the Empire. 1945--2021. America’s declaration of empire in 1945, and America’s (sort of) admission of the end of empire in 2021. Japan surrendered to the US September 2, America’s formal departure from Kabul is slated for August 31, though the real anniversary could be August 15, when the Taliban captured the presidential palace in Kabul, prompting other collages comparing the follies of empire and the real thing.
January 6, 2021
76 years of ruling the world, from the launch of the Cold War in 1945, reaching its apotheosis with the collapse of the ‘evil empire’ Soviet Union in 1991, and 30 years later, this sorry end. That collapse of the Soviet Union was supposed to lead to peace. When you defeat your enemy, you have the opportunity to dismantle your deadly weapons and rule the world benignly, without killing people and destroying nature. So how did we get to today's tragicomic impasse?
The new black
During those 30 years, instead of giving us all our expected 'peace dividend', the US refashioned its North American NATO alliance into a world policeman. It would no longer be the US that did all the nasty business of empire. Not only did the US betray the now Russian protagonist by absorbing eastern Europe, it turned what was supposedly a defensive alliance into an occupation force for Iraq and Afghanistan, and now is welcoming civil war-ravaged Colombia as a ‘global partner’, even as the US ramps up subversion in neighbouring Venezuela, and of course Cuba, Iran, Syria, North Korea.
Although invasion and occupation is still a bottom line (sorry Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria!, watch out Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, North Korea!), the ‘new black’ is NATO as 'emperor's new clothes' and sanctions as 'war by starvation'. Sanctions, this new-old form of warfare actually has a long, but checkered, history for the US.
After its failure to coerce Britain and France to respect American sovereignty and neutrality during the Napoleonic wars, Congress repealed Jefferson’s Embargo Act in 1809. It had hurt the US as much as Britain, and merely encouraged Britain to turn to the South American market for its exports. British shipowners were delighted that American competition had been removed. A kind of own-goal event. (Much as today for Russia and Iran.)
It was not raised again till President Wilson proposed using embargoes to control other countries after WWI, but he meant through the League of Nations, which of course the US never joined. Despite Hitler’s clear and present danger, the US actually helped the Nazis rearm. So much for Wilson and the League.
In 1940, the US, still clinging to a very unhappy Philippines, joined the other imperial nations with colonies in southeast Asia Britain, Holland and France, to sanction Japan. This stellar strategy merely incited Japan to ... attack the US! So much for sanctions.
After US victory in WWII, sanctions became a key part of the US arsenal. At last count, a total of 29 enemy nations are sanctioned by the US, including even the still-born Afghanistan.
The above satirical images prompt other more serious ones, their shadows. The imperial nemesis, the Soviet Union, burst through the capitalist chains in 1917, reached its apotheosis when it won WWII by capturing Berlin, expanding its reach in eastern Europe and elsewhere. February 15, 1989 marks the end of this anti-empire, as the last troops crossed the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan.The Soviet Union made little use of sanctions; on the contrary, it did its best to undermine that willful war-by-any-other-name by the US, which, like actual bombing wars, hurts in the first place the poor, women and children.
The Soviet Union lasted 74 years. The Yanks won the Empire vs anti-empire race! But did they retire gracefully while they were ‘ahead’ (whatever that means)? LOL.
But there is a precedent that gives some hope. After the humiliating defeat in Vietnam, celebrated now on May 1, 1975 (yes, another iconic image), the US was forced to leave, with its tail between its legs. But in the words of Roger Rabbit defending his use of humour as his only weapon, ‘Going around with my tail between my legs. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.’
Caption: US Embassies: Saigon 1975 Kabul 2021
For that brief, shining moment, under Presidents Ford and Carter, the US was forced to actually make peace its foreign policy. Americans elected Jimmy Carter in 1976, a peacenik at heart, despite actually launching the US attack on Afghanistan, thanks to his adviser Brzezinski and the CIA at his back. But that’s the fate of any imperial leader, and Carter spent the next 40 years as world peacenik, trying to atone for his fatal mistake, finally given his Peace Prize in 2002. (His anti-empire counterpart, Gorbachev got his Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for ceding the anti-empire peacefully. But empires are not anti-empires. There's no 'heppi end' for them).
During those five years, before Reagan began US Empire mark II, detente with the Soviet Union blossomed, Apollo-Soyuz brought astronaut and cosmonaut together orbiting the Earth, the last US disarmament treaty with anyone was signed, the Sandinistas liberated Nicaragua.
End of Camelot
Of course, we all know what happens to things historical the second time around. Tragedy becomes farce. Iwo Jima 1945 becomes Mount Suribachi 2021. Interestingly, this transition, coined by Marx referring to Napoleon I and Napoleon III, doesn’t work for the Soviet Union. There was nothing farcical about either 1917 or 1989. Rather, it is the transition from 1989 to 2021 that fits the tragedy-to-farce shift. Thank you, Taliban, for making that point.
The appearance of the Soviet anti-empire had meant a new trajectory for the Empire, forcing the US to slightly restrain its appetite in order to undermine the new movement against empire. Sanctions, apart from those targeting the Soviet Union et al, were not used much, either by the US or the UN, as they would merely push countries into the Soviet camp.
The Cold War proved to be hard work. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, sanctions became the plat du jour, joining the dysfunctional world of atom bombs, various chemical and biological weapons, nuclear-armed submarines. The list of evils is long, and includes the quite probable destruction of the entire planet, maybe even without the nuclear war we all fear so much.
We are living out a biblical prophecy recorded in the Book of Daniel. Belshazzar holds a great feast and drinks from the vessels that had been looted in the destruction of the First Temple. A hand appears and writes on the wall. The terrified Belshazzar calls for his wise men, but they are unable to read the writing. The queen advises him to send for Daniel, renowned for his wisdom. Daniel reminds Belshazzar that his father Nebuchadnezzar, when he became arrogant, was thrown down until he learned that God has sovereignty over the kingdom of men. Daniel then reads the message and interprets it: God has numbered Belshazzar's days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to the Medes and the Persians.
Caption: This writing is in Persian and Russian, sadly celebrating Afghan-Soviet friendship in its final days.
So these latter-day Persians/ Pashtuns first defeated the Soviet anti-empire. But then went on to defeat the Empire itself, a much greater achievement. No farce here. The Soviets suffered from hubris, thinking they could make the world a better place. Now this humiliation is being meted on the Americans. Daniel got it right. And we haven’t even got to Persia (Iran) itself, which incredibly is defying the Empire even after more than 40 years of sanctions and subversion.
Can the US shake off its imperial baggage? Colonel Ann Wright, retired United States Army colonel, former deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan in 2001, co-founder of CodePink, is now begging Biden NOT to close the embassy there. I hope the Biden administration is sincere in its promise that it will not abandon the Afghan people after 20 years of occupying their country. I hope it sincerely wants to provide humanitarian assistance to help ease the crisis, as well as for long-term health, education, and infrastructure projects. After all, if we could spend an average of $300 million a day on war, we can certainly find the funds to save Afghan lives.
The US must bite the bullet and help, not bomb and drone the country into more rubble. There is life after death.