Are Georgia, South Ossetia and the rest of the Caucasus part of the nearby Middle East? Do Afghanistan and Pakistan belong to that same potential geographic Waterloo? Does Turkey, with its new ties to Russia and radical Iran?
Not that the cartographic quibbles and definitions really matter. More central is how the potential embarrassment of the United States -- the curtain that seems to be descending on its fading hegemony -- now extends beyond the older, narrower Middle East ranging from Egypt and Israel to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Iran. The unfolding battleground reaches from Turkey, the Black Sea, southern Russia and the Caucasus in the west, to the Sudan and Somalia in the south, and in the east to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the nearby roof of the world where Pakistan and India meet China. And the tide is hostile.
Three or four decades from now, historians will write more precise epitaphs. However the West, especially the United States, undertook the hubris-driven commitment now boomeranging between the mid-1990s and 2003-2004. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and then George W. Bush predicted and proclaimed a New World order of democracy, Western oil access and the marketplace from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. In 2003 and 2004, remember, Washington leaders and pundits all but announced a new Rome on the Potomac. Sadly, highly relevant historical precedents made it a joke almost from the first.
Each of the the three nations that preceded the U.S. as the leading world economic power -- Hapsburg Spain in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Holland when New York was still New Amsterdam, then Britain from the Industrial Revolution to the early 20th century -- has met a roughly similar fate: global diplomatic and military over-reach, a transformation of its economy to rely on finance and globalism, misplaced hubris, wars it cannot afford and ultimately, debt it can no longer manage. Each comeuppance has been harsh. The Spanish finally drained their wealth in Europe's bloody Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the Dutch lost ground steadily after they ballooned their debt fivefold during the wars between 1688 and 1713, and the British were all but bankrupted by the two world wars, finally enduring a half-decade of food rationing after "victory" in 1945.
Since the early 1990s, I have been describing in various books the ever-growing relevance of these precedents to the United States, not that politicians or policymakers were inclined to pay much attention (nor did those in earlier nations heed warnings). Overall, the American self-deception is bipartisan, but the three terms of Bush presidencies bear the greatest responsibility, especially the years of George W. Bush.
The transformation since 2005 has been particularly frightening. Turkey, right next door to Europe, is now home to growing anti-American violence. This summer, Turkey hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a working visit, and some Turkish officials share Russia's concerns that their government should not let U.S. Navy ships enter the Black Sea to aid Georgia. Besides flexing its new energy muscle with Turkey, Russia is also repaying Washington for Moscow's late 1990s embarrassment in the Balkans when the West promoted the ethnic breakway republic of Kosovo. Now the Kremlin has replied in the strategic Caucasus by embracing the ethnic South Ossetian breakaway from the U.S.-supported Republic of Georgia. Overall, Washington's plan to bring Georgia, which borders Russia, into the NATO military alliance -- a classic of both hubris and over-reach -- now looks more like self-entrapment.
Within the old core Middle East, Lebanon and anti-America Syria have just established diplomatic relations for the first time in sixty years. In next-door Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, expected to win the upcoming national elections,is a Dick Cheney-style sabre-rattler. As for Iran, the souring of U.S. relations with Russia, means that the Kremlin will no longer help American attempts to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions. This should further enable Iran to use its oil resources as a regional political and economic weapon. Although part of the reason why the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 was to take over its oil, start pumping and break OPEC's hold on oil production, Washington's provocation and mismanagement so offended the Middle-East dominated OPEC producers that they let oil prices soar from the $22-28 dollar a barrel range of 2003 to over $100. Against this backdrop of Iraq as a petro-disaster, the military progress and Sunni-Shiite-Kurd political collaboration the White House now boasts of will probably do no more than postpone the ultimate unraveling of Iraq until 2009 or 2010. Half of its territory could become an Iranian sphere of influence.
Further to the east, the geopolitical quicksand is getting steadily oozier. Ever more Western soldiers are now dying in Afghanistan, and just as it took the Islamic hardliners a decade to drive out the Russians in the 1980s, by 2011 the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion could yield a kindred embarrassment. Next door, Pakistan, a longtime U.S. ally, is on the verge of economic calamity. At the same time, anti-Americanism is surging because U.S. troops based in Afghanistan are violating Pakistani borders. Alas, the newly chosen Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari, is a mediocrity who earlier served eleven years in jail on corruption charges. His nickname at the time was Mr. Ten Percent. To the north, under the auspices of the burgeoning Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia, China and four central Asian republics held first-ever joint military maneuvers last summer. They do not seem to have held any this summer, probably wise given August's other Russian provocations taking place in the Caucasus.
To a degree, this was predictable. Back in late 2002, as Messrs. Bush and Cheney prepared for their great conquest in Iraq, I contributed an essay, "Hegemony, Hubris and Overreach" to The Iraq War Reader, edited by Micah Sifry and Christopher Cerf and published just after the 2003 invasion. In it, I wrote that "The 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States produced a proper and effective retaliation in Afghanistan. There is less to be said for metamorphosis of that response into a broader ambition to subdue, dominate and reshape an area that stretches northwest from the Persian Gulf to the Caucasus and eastward to Afghanistan and Central Asia...Despite the difficulty in making comparisons across the centuries, there is a chance that such a role could begin the U.S. equivalent of the Hapsburg, Dutch and British draining experiences of 1618-1648, 1688-1713 and 1914-1945."
The negative odds seem to grow with every year that the United States remains mired in this regional Waterloo-in-Waiting. In terms of the November election, swing voters are right to see Republican John McCain as the nominee most likely to promote military and geopolitical overreach without any serious attention to its economic costs and dangers. But if the Democrats are better, it's not by much. The Clinton administration periodically over-reached, and although Democrat Obama was perspicacious in opposing the invasion of Iraq, his current positions on extending U.S. activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan and bringing Georgia into NATO underscore the bipartisan rhetoric that makes extrication seem so implausible.
The involvement is understandable. Whatever the clarity of later historical retrospect, the British, Dutch and Spanish did not slip into their fatal postures and commitments on a whim or a lark. When their decades of vulnerability arrived, they had generations, even centuries, of principles, commitments, patriotisms and religious beliefs -- a kind of moral and behavioral momentum -- underpinning their hubris and exceptionalism.
The United States of 2008 fits this pattern, too. Even today's economics of crisis -- fear of financial collapse, repetitious Washington bail-outs, intervention by foreign central banks to help a weak currency on the ropes -- has its precedents. Back in the 1920s, as British international leadership was unraveling, central banks led by the United States intervened (in 1925 and 1927) to try to support the weakened British pound. In the end, all this did was to create a bigger speculative bubble to burst in 1929-1932 . In the ensuing decades, it didn't save British finance, the pound sterling or British global hegemony. And the odds are that today's postures will not, over the coming decade, save Wall Street's financial bubble, the U.S. dollar or Washington's global over-reach.
Kevin Phillips's most recent book is Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, published by Viking in April.