"Now," she continued, "we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."
Coming from the principal diplomat of a great imperial power, Rice's cavalier dismissal of stability was astonishing. Maintaining stability holds the key to the successful management of empire. Furthermore, although the stability of the Middle East over the previous decades might qualify as precarious, it was hardly to be sniffed at.
By and large, borders had remained sacrosanct. Once installed in power, regimes persisted. For the most part, successions occurred in an orderly fashion. Although the potential for war was omnipresent, actual instances of interstate conflict were fairly infrequent and, with important exceptions such as the Iran-Iraq War, tended to be brief.
In no sense was the region "at peace". Yes, the Middle East was a powder keg. But through whatever combination of skill, luck, or divine favour, the keg didn't blow up. In short, as Rice made her dramatic pronouncement, with its vow to radically change the political landscape, things could have been worse.
Today they are.
At the time, cynics dismissed Rice's speech as an ex post facto justification of the Iraq War, which the United States had initiated two years earlier. With the Bush administration's case for that war - Saddam Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and his collaboration with al-Qaeda - now exposed as nonexistent, the United States needed to contrive a new rationale for mess it had created in Iraq. The so-called Freedom Agenda - the United States now claiming to promote democratic change everywhere in the Islamic world - filled the bill. Credit Obama with having learned one important lesson from his predecessor: Sending US troops to invade and occupy countries in the Greater Middle East is a dumb idea.
Whether or not the claim of subordinating stability to democracy was sincere turns out to be beside the point. By invading Iraq, the United States lit a fuse, which blew the powder keg sky high. It's far too early to determine where all the pieces are going to land. It's not too early to conclude that the age of empire in the Middle East has now ended for good.
New imperial order
After World War I, having engineered the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain (with France a willing accomplice) created a new imperial order that lasted barely a half-century. Britain's withdrawal from "East of Suez" in the 1960s marked its demise. London no longer possessed sufficient power to maintain its position in the Middle East and prudently got out.
In its place, the United States erected a new imperial order based on a series of shifting alliances. At one time or another, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Israel all played important roles. This order too lasted approximately a half-century. We may date its demise from December 2011, when US forces withdrew from Iraq. Even in this one country, US power had not sufficed to bring the promise of the Freedom Agenda to fruition.
The great conceit of the Freedom Agenda was that the United States possessed the capacity - primarily measured in armed might - to discard one US-devised order and replace it with another more to its own liking. In Iraq that enterprise failed irredeemably. In Washington, however, the implications of that failure, stemming primarily from a reckless misuse of military power, have yet to sink in.
Today the limited stability that Rice treated with such disdain is well and truly gone, as events everywhere from Libya to Yemen to Syria to Iraq make abundantly clear.
Semblance of calm
Yet in responding to the chaos that Rice and her colleagues did so much to foster, US President Barack Obama clings to the expectation that US military power, wielded directly or through proxies, can somehow or other restore a semblance of calm, however partial or imperfect.
Credit Obama with having learned one important lesson from his predecessor: Sending US troops to invade and occupy countries in the Greater Middle East is a dumb idea.
Fault him for not appreciating the larger lesson that US military intervention in this part of the world is inherently counterproductive. Air strikes, drone strikes, cyber strikes, special operations forces dispatched to advise or train or kill: None of these will suffice to check the anarchic forces that the United States itself helped let loose.
Americans tend to think of history as a series of problems that the United States is called upon to solve. That view is mistaken. To think of history as tragedy comes closer to the truth.
In the Middle East, tragedy unfolds before our eyes. To imagine that US power can put things right is to succumb to an illusion on a vast scale. Prudence demands that the United States itself - the last imperial power - get out before inflicting even more harm.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.
(Source: Al Jazeera, 31 March 2015)