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Imperial Bets That Go Awry
Imperial powers hedge their bets. The most striking recent example we have of this is in Egypt. While the Pentagon was pouring money into the Egyptian military (approximately $40 billion since 1979), it turns out -- thank you, WikiLeaks! -- that the U.S. government was shuttling far smaller amounts (millions, not billions) to various “American government-financed organizations” loosely connected with Congress or with the Democratic and Republican parties. Some of that money, in turn, was being invested in “democracy-building campaigns” aimed at teaching young Egyptian activists how to organize a movement against their autocratic ruler, how to make the best use of social networking sites, and so on.
In other words, in Egypt (and elsewhere in the Middle East), Washington was funding both the autocrats and the young activists who opposed them and who, in Egypt, would be crucial players in the Tahrir Square movement that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. As one of those activists told the New York Times, “While we appreciated the training we received through the NGOs sponsored by the U.S. government, and it did help us in our struggles, we are also aware that the same government also trained the state security investigative service, which was responsible for the harassment and jailing of many of us.”
Meanwhile, thanks to other State Department documents WikiLeaks recently released, we know that, in at least one Middle Eastern country where Washington did not enthusiastically support the local autocrat -- Syria -- the State Department was channeling significant sums of money into “secretly financ[ing]... political opposition groups and related projects, including a satellite TV channel that beams anti-government programming into the country.“ It was, in other words, preparing a new elite for a “regime change” future.
Think of it as a kind of grim irony that a significant part of the Egyptian military’s high command was in northern Virginia, attending an annual U.S.-Egypt Military Cooperation Committee meeting in late January, when all hell broke loose in Tahrir Square, thanks to those Egyptian activists, some trained with Washington’s money. The creation or support of elites has, as Alfred McCoy and Brett Reilly write in “An Empire of Failed States,” always been crucial to running global empires. And yet client elites are one of those subjects seldom given much thought, even though Great Britain, for instance, ruled its Indian Raj with striking, if oppressive, efficiency for endless decades with surprisingly few personnel from England. How else, after all, could a global empire continue? And yet, as a great power’s strength and influence wane, those bets -- like the one Washington placed in Egypt -- begin to go awry, from an imperial point of view. If McCoy, the author most recently of Policing America’s Empire, and Reilly are right, Washington’s touch, when it comes to keeping local elites in line, may indeed be “on the rocks.”