Last week the “liberal” Israeli daily Haaretz carried a piece by one of its best-known columnists, Ari Shavit.
“Two huge processes are happening right before our eyes,” he writes. “One is the Arab liberation revolution. The second process is the acceleration of the decline of the West.”
The connection between the two is provided, according to Shavit, by Barack Obama embracing the same stance taken by his predecessor Jimmy Carter during the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9: “Kowtowing to benighted, strong tyrants while abandoning moderate, weak ones.
“Carter’s betrayal of the Shah brought us the ayatollahs, and will soon bring us ayatollahs with nuclear arms. The consequences of the West’s betrayal of Mubarak will be no less severe. It’s not only a betrayal of a leader who was loyal to the West, served stability and encouraged moderation. It’s a betrayal of every ally of the West in the Middle East and the developing world.
“The West has lost it. The West has stopped being a leading and stabilising force around the world.”
To understand the shrillness of Shavit’s tone, you need only know that in April 2004, during Ariel Sharon’s brutal repression of the second Palestinian intifada, he bragged, “A new strategic reality is beginning to take shape around us—a reality of an Israeli victory.” Behind his sympathy for poor old “moderate” tyrants like the Shah of Iran and Hosni Mubarak, Shavit is articulating a deep-seated fear of the Israeli establishment—that one day the United States might decide it was in its interests to abandon them. Such is the uncertain plight of all client states.
But, special pleading aside, it’s still worth asking whether Shavit is right that “the overall outcome will be the collapse of North Atlantic political hegemony not in decades, but in years.”
It’s certainly true that the US has maintained its globally dominant position through being the leading power in the three main regions of advanced capitalism—North America, Western Europe, and East Asia—as well as the Middle East.
Oil is what US analyst Simon Bromley has called a “strategic commodity”. Dominating the Middle East has given Washington leverage over its actual or potential European and Asian rivals, who are more dependent on the region’s oil than the US itself is.
The fall of the Shah was a severe blow to US hegemony in the Middle East. But Washington had already received partial compensation for this setback when President Anwar Sadat brought Egypt into the Western camp by making peace with Israel.
Revolution in Egypt now threatens to destroy this alliance. We don’t know what the outcome of the struggle for power on the Nile will be. But even a weakly democratic Egyptian government would be less sympathetic to the US and Israel than Mubarak. A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey last year found that 82 percent of Egyptians have an unfavourable attitude towards the US—America’s worst rating in the world.
This setback comes against the background of Washington’s failure in Iraq, where it has to compete with Iran for influence over the regime its military might installed.
Globally, America’s relative economic decline has been made more dramatic by the recession and its aftermath. Though the European Union is far too feeble and self-obsessed to pose any sort of challenge to American hegemony, China is flexing its muscles in East Asia, a region the US has dominated since the Pacific War.
The Egyptian revolution, in other words, is yet another blow to an already embattled American superpower. This doesn’t mean that US hegemony will be over “in years”, as Shavit asserts.
America remains the biggest economy in the world, the centre of the global financial system, and with vastly greater military capabilities than any other power or combination of powers. Nevertheless, the stakes in Egypt are very high for the US. That’s why the Obama administration is working so hard with both the regime and the opposition to ensure that Egypt remains locked into the US alliance system.
Whether or not it succeeds will depend on the determination and strength of the Egyptian masses.