Right now, at the invaluable Antiwar.com website -- overflowing with blazing headlines -- you can see two worlds of trouble awkwardly intertwined. The first is a Middle East newly afire, one in which Muammar Qaddafi’s rotting, mad regime is shrinking to the size of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, while the rest of the region continues to light up with protest. In Iraq, tens of thousands of demonstrators ignored government warnings and curfews to attend a nationwide “day of rage” for a better life, “storming provincial government offices in several cities” and forcing government officials to resign, even as they faced tear gas, batons, and in some cases real bullets.
Elsewhere nervous rulers were moving to placate their restless, angry populations, including 87-year-old Saudi King Abdullah, a sclerotic, American-backed autocrat who just announced a massive $36 billion package of benefits (think: bribe) aimed at his own people, lest they, too, get out of hand. Nonetheless, as an Antiwar.com headline tells us, the King -- according to a New York Times report, so “popular” as to be almost invulnerable to “democracy movements” -- now faces Facebook threats of the first “day of rage” in his kingdom. The U.S. is still betting that its Persian Gulf autocrats and oil sheiks will emerge as winners, but hold onto your hats. In a crunch, the Saudi king’s popularity may prove all-too-Mubarakian, meaning that Washington would again find itself on the wrong side of history.
Unfortunately for such regimes right now, acts of repression only enrage, and so expand, the opposition, while any concessions are seen (quite rightly) as signs of weakness.
At the same time, consider the headlines from that other (increasingly beside-the-point) world, the one where American imperial adventures take place. Yes, yet another American aircraft has gunned down Afghan civilians. Yes, yet more CIA drone aircraft launched yet more Hellfire missiles in the Pakistani borderlands, killing yet more unknown people who may or may not be “terrorists.”
Yes, the Pakistani police have picked up yet another American of unknown provenance, this time in those same borderlands, whose visa had “expired.” It's likely he'll turn out to be one of the scores or even hundreds of CIA operatives and Agency contractors who have entered Pakistan in recent months to pursue Washington's covert war there. Yes, we have yet another “runaway” American general in Afghanistan who evidently organized psy-ops squads to shape the malleable minds of visiting congressional representatives. Yes, despite repeated claimed of "progress" in the Afghan War, a U.N. official now insists that security in the country has fallen to its worst level since 2001. Yes, yet another Afghan valley which the best American military minds long claimed “vital” for the U.S. to garrison is being abandoned. (It’s called “realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people.”) And yes, even though the training of Afghan security forces is supposedly going swimmingly, “attrition” reportedly remains sky-high, with the Afghan Army losing 32% of its forces annually, mainly through desertion, in this Groundhog Day version of war.
You get the idea -- and so, evidently, does Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who just told an audience of West Point cadets that, as far as he was concerned, there should be no future Afghan-style American ground wars on the Asian continent or in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in far-off Wisconsin, the protesters who massed for a huge rally Saturday evidently know instinctively which side of history they're on; unlike the Obama administration, they identify with those organizing the “days of rage” in the Middle East, not with its autocrats. American demonstrators may still be focused on issues of immediate self-interest, but remember, only yesterday no one thought a non-Tea-Party-type would ever again take to an American street shouting protest slogans.
And keep in mind as well, if you stay out in the streets long enough, sooner or later you’ll move beyond an imperious and manipulative governor and run smack into imperial power itself -- into, that is, our obtuse, time-warped wars which take their toll here, too. If the protests continue to spread, so will the subject matter, and then it will be clearer, as TomDispatch associate editor Andy Kroll reports from Madison, just how close we're coming to Cairo.