Um... anyone heard anything about Syria lately? You know, that place we were all ready to invade a few weeks back, with warships gathering in the Mediterranean, bombers in the air 24 hours a day, and troops on high alert? It seems like this war, that was so critical to our national interests, has been relegated to the dreaded “page 4, below the fold” section of the paper. And as usual with the crisis of the month (or week, these days) the question arises, could it really have been that important before and this unimportant now? Or, is it still important but no one wants to talk about it? Or, was it unimportant before, and all the excitement was no more than propaganda, fear-mongering, and a downright hoax? I mean... how much do other countries, peoples, tribes... empires, even... change in just a few weeks? And on the other hand, how much does the fickle, gullible, and hysteria-prone American public change in just a few weeks? The answer is obvious.
No, what has happened is a sea change in what we call “foreign relations”, which is the interface between the American Empire and the rest of the world. And do not underestimate the magnitude of this change, or its significance! As tectonic shifts go, it's certainly the equivalent of Pearl Harbor, our ignominious defeat in Vietnam, and 9-11. It's also the latest phase in our unending relationship with Russia – lining up quite nicely with the descent of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Soviets' acquisition of “the bomb”, Sputnik, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. If the 20th Century was the American century in some respects (at least beginning with World War I), then it was also the Russian century. After we got together to defeat fascism and make the world safe for communism, they became the anti-us and we became the anti-them -- huffing and puffing like professional wrestlers, pretending to be bitter enemies but actually playing the same game the same way year after year. And so it continued right up until their breakup. The Cold War, so-called, was really a finely-tuned balancing act, and both sides played it cool most of the time, with only an occasional crisis to test the waters. (What we wouldn't give now for having an enemy that's an actual country with borders, and a visible military with uniforms and flags. We didn't know how good we had it!)
What happened next was, for them, a long period of rest from empire building and a chance to get used to an economic system that we had long taken for granted – you know, the kind where there's private ownership, competition, and people are allowed to make money, and so on. Old hat to us, but completely novel to them, with virtually no living memory of how things were pre-Bolshevism. And on the foreign front, they continued to try and exert influence over the newly-liberated, i.e. escaped, former Soviet republics, with varying degrees of success. And the influence they sought was mainly political, and also economic – not military, note, except in the general sense of having a security buffer zone in all directions. No, they left that kind of nonsense to us, fully realizing that the grossly over-extended American Empire would sooner or later start to deteriorate – which it, in fact, has. This is why they didn't put up much of a fuss about our military misadventures – because they knew that it would mean our gradual weakening... militarily, economically, and diplomatically – and that could only be good news for them and their interests. And sure enough, our old alliances decayed to the point where, on a fairly regular basis, a vote at the U.N. would come out with us and Israel voting one way, and the rest of the world voting the other way. And yet, it never occurred to us that there was anything wrong with that -- we, who had everything to do with establishing the U.N. in the first place. Funny how things change.
So they beheld our follies and kept a safe distance. Sure, they had their problems, internally, with Islamic activism and attacks – but nothing on the order of 9-11 (which, as we all know – ahem! -- was an attack from halfway around the world). They saw that, sooner or later, the U.S. and Israel would die in each other's arms, like a couple of characters from some opera – singing, with our last breath, about the awfulness and apathy of the rest of the world, which consists mainly of “haters”, racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. Oh the tragedy! Oh the humanity!
And yet... Russia has its “interests”, just as we do. Isn't that fair? (Apparently not.) It has its sphere of influence... its “turf”, and it turns out (no surprise) that Syria is part of that turf. I mean... as far as Russia is concerned, we can go ahead and nuke Afghanistan; it would serve them right after what they did to our patriotic and heroic boys who wore the red star. And they don't seem to have any great interest in Iraq (Iran being, perhaps, a different matter – which may be why we haven't attacked it yet). But Syria? Um, yeah... too close to home. So it was time to put their foot down. Plus, they sensed a weakness – a number of weaknesses, in fact. This country was in the middle of a civil war of words... a culture war... “occupiers”, “tea partiers”, budget crises, debt crises, a questionable “recovery” from the Great Recession (AKA not-great depression), and a president whose foreign policy is incoherent even on the best days, and whose inner circle consists of a bunch of power-crazed mediocrities. Americans were not “war-weary” (as is often stated by the media) but the military (not to mention the economy) had paid the price for two endless wars. Plus, Israel had ruled the roost in the Middle East for far too long, with us as errand boys, gofers, and cannon fodder. It was a great time to draw a line in the sand, and they did. And in response, we, basically, collapsed. Oh yeah, it was all “we're not giving up, we expect 'progress' or else”, etc. We're still a contender... I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille... and other icons of delusion. But everyone knew that we'd been called out, and had blinked. And Russia, just to rub it in, didn't jump up and down, or shout, or scream – they just very calmly played the part of the older and wiser (and more rational) nation, gently but firmly telling us to stand down and butt out. The message was “we've got this, OK?” And apparently Israel got the message as well – at least well enough not to mount a full-scale attack all by their lonesome (as if!). And.... oh yeah, I almost forgot Britain and France, who headed for the tall grass the first time they made eye contact with Vladimir Putin. “Hey, no problem! No empires for us, thanks – been there, done that. Have a nice day.” At least we still have some small, residual sense of shame.
So... what happens now? Are we just on sick leave, and once we're feeling better we'll jump back into the ring? I don't think so, because Russia is not about to leave. They stepped up, identified themselves as peacemakers (take that, Nobel Prize nerds!), but in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition of speaking softly but carrying a bit stick. We've been displaced, and I don't care how much of the time John Kerry shows his prune face over there, we're now strap hangers and they're driving the train. Israel, of course, must be fit to be tied, but they know better than to show it. Just a temporary setback, you know, and, well, maybe we can get rid of Assad some other way, etc. But they have to be feeling a chill in the air, because it's the first serious setback for them (or us) over there since Israel came to be. And if it can happen with Syria, it can also happen with any number of other places – and thus their isolation (and ours) becomes more profound with each passing day. How long can we expect to be in charge if we're increasingly marginalized? The fact is, we're not in charge – and haven't been for quite a while. We're the big, stupid muscle guy who takes orders from everyone else. And I'm not saying that the Regime (cabal, whatever) has met its match in Russia, but it has certainly taken a shot off the bow, and the effects are clearly sobering. Russia has been gathering its strength all this time, and if it should ever waver, China is not far behind.
It's a new world, and I, for one, can't say that I'm sorry. We may have had some moral superiority at the time of World War II and immediately afterward, but it started to fray with Korea and pretty much vanished without a trace in Vietnam. Everything since has been about empire, pure and simple – not right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, but power... influence... turf. We've become just another country throwing its weight around. This is not the way things were supposed to be... and if less power means less abuse of power, so be it. It is better to be remembered for the good one has done in the past than feared for the evil one is doing in the present.