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The Superman Conditional

As the Egyptian revolution began to unfold in late January, the response of the Obama administration was appalling, yet predictable. The American government seemed perpetually one step behind the rapidly unfolding movement on the streets of Cairo, as each reluctant escalation of their rhetoric was rendered inoperative by events on the ground. Obama was calling for “restraint” on both sides even as Mubarak’s one-sided brutality became obvious, before moving on to make favorable gestures toward vice-dictator Omar Suleiman even as Tahrir Square signaled that he was equally tainted by his central role in the Mubarak police state. As events built toward the climactic moment of February 11, American officials seemed to be rhetorically trapped, as they continually chanted the phrase “deeply concerned” as if in a kind of repetitive-compulsive trance.

The uprising in Libya similarly befuddled the American regime, although by this time “deeply concerned” had been traded in for “strongly condemn” — a necessary concession to a dictator so brutal and delusional as to make the farcical nature of the previous talk about “concern” and “restraint” obvious to all. Once again, the administration seemed at a loss, unsure what to do even as it faced demands for forceful action from all sides.

American leftists and liberals have a familiar script to read from in times like these, and initially many of us returned to it in reaction to Obama’s vacillation. In one respect, both left anti-imperialists and liberal humanitarian interventionists have a similar critique of American foreign policy, as it is traditionally practiced: democracy and human rights abroad are perpetually sacrificed in the service of the “national interest.” Liberal interventionists tend to believe that narrow calculations of American interest should be supplemented with a more idealist commitment to universal humanitarian norms, while anti-imperialists argue that such idealism is itself typically a cover for the projection of imperial power, and that the best thing America can do for the countries of the periphery is to stop meddling in their affairs. Either way, Obama’s response failed to measure up and both critiques could be heard in the midst of events in Egypt.

Implicit in both the Left and liberal version of this criticism, however, is a premise about American power: namely, that Obama has the power to decisively influence events in the Arab world, but chooses not to exercise it. But the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions have done much to challenge this premise, and Obama’s reluctance to intercede is perhaps better understood as reflecting American weakness rather than (or in addition to) American cynicism.

In the case of Egypt, it initially seemed clear that Obama had an important source of leverage against the Egyptian military: the $1.5 billion in aid that the United States sends it each year. So long as that aid was not revoked, Obama’s professed inability to influence events in Egypt rung hollow to most observers. Yet many students of American foreign policy eventually concluded that Obama’s hesitation was less a reflection of his cynical realist geopolitics than it was an attempt to conceal America’s weak hand.

It is true that US aid makes up over 20 percent of the Egyptian military’s budget. However, much of this aid flows to American contractors who sell equipment and training to the Egyptians, so it is in some ways just a back-door subsidy to the American military-industrial complex. And the Egyptian military has its own independent sources of power: its heavy investments in the domestic economy, and its continuing popular legitimacy among the Egyptian people (as indicated by the popular Tahrir Square chant “the people and the army are one”). What’s more, any relation of dependency that exists between the Egyptian and American regimes is not one-way: Egypt has helped the US government launder its policy of torture by taking responsibility for interrogating supposed terrorists who were outsourced by the policy of “rendition,” and Egyptian support has been critical to the American-Israeli policy of illegally blockading the Gaza Strip. This suggests that the real reason aid was never cut off was that by playing the aid card, Obama would only have impelled the Egyptian regime to go it alone — thus revealing that military aid was not the trump card we all assumed it to be. A weakness of the American empire would thus have been on display for all to see.

In Libya, the US has never had the kind of close ties to the Gaddafi regime that it enjoys with the Egyptian generals. So in the face of the Libyan rebellion, the demands on Obama — from left and right — moved directly to some kind of military intervention. At this writing, an actual invasion has been ruled out by most — a widespread reluctance to occupy yet another country being one of the few positive legacies of the debacle in Iraq. But calls for a no-fly zone have come from many sides, including the Arab League and some of the Libyan revolutionaries themselves.

Once again, however, it seems that the real question is not what Obama should do, but what he can do. Defense Secretary Gates has been one of the few voices of reason in the often fantastical no-fly zone debate, pointing out that enforcing such a policy would entail bombing Libyan air defenses, and could easily end up drawing American forces into combat on the ground. If that happened, the US would risk attracting the hostility of both the Gaddafi loyalists and the opposition, while becoming ensnared in a prolonged invasion and occupation. In other words, Libya could end up another Iraq or Afghanistan, an outcome that would do more to erode American imperial might than to reinforce it — and that would of course do nothing to improve the lot of the Libyan revolutionaries themselves.

Those of us who have been active on the Left for a while are accustomed to internal debates about foreign policy playing out in a certain way, ever since the end of the Cold War: liberals demand US military action for “humanitarian” ends, while the anti-imperialist Left argues that such interventions have a very poor record of actually leading to desirable political or humanitarian outcomes. In the course of such a debate, each side finds itself fighting alongside some rather unsavory allies: the liberals are objectively allied with the forthrightly imperialist designs of neoconservatives, while leftists must put up with the vulgar anti-imperialism of those who insist on glorifying any enemy of the United States, up to and including creatures like Milosevic and Saddam.

But the Arab revolutions of 2011 seem to be upending this dynamic: on both the Left and the Right, traditional battle lines have become scrambled. On the conservative side, Egypt revealed a deep split between those who continued to take the Bush-era rhetoric of “democracy promotion” seriously, and those for whom white supremacy and anti-Muslim hysteria took precedence over everything. Thus we were treated to the spectacle of neoconservative ghoul Elliott Abrams deriding Obama for his insufficiently enthusiastic support of the anti-Mubarak protests, even as Glenn Beck was warning that those same protests signaled an Islamist-Communist plot to impose a new caliphate in the Middle East.

On the Left, too, positions have become unexpectedly fluid. Michael Walzer, a prominent liberal apologist for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has argued for respecting Libyan sovereignty, saying that true liberation will only come if the people topple Gaddafi themselves rather than with the assistance of foreign powers. It was only a few short years ago that Walzer was ascribing these sorts of arguments to a self-hating faction of extremists, who had no place in his definition of a “decent left” that appreciated the democratic virtues of American warmongering.

And what of the vulgar anti-imperialists? Although there are a few holdouts who insist on defending Gaddafi, these are few and far between. Of greater interest is the stance of groups like the Workers World Party, a Leninist sect that has distinguished itself over the years with its reflexive affinity for any anti-American regime, no matter how detestable its behavior toward its own citizens. In response to Libya, this reflex has been fairly muted. While Workers World (and its split-off, the Party for Socialism and Liberation) have made some predictably positive noises about the anti-colonialist content of Gaddafi’s revolution, they have also tried to express sympathy for the rebel fighters, while warning of the danger that these opposition forces will be undermined or co-opted by imperialist intervention.

Ultimately, such warnings about American intervention seem a bit beside the point — not because they are wrong in principle, but because the prospect of a US invasion of Libya seems so remote. As of this writing, it is impossible to say what the ultimate outcome in Libya will be — but if foreign troops do become involved, it seems more likely that they will come from European or Middle Eastern states, rather than from the US It is increasingly obvious that in general, calls for the US government to somehow “help” other people’s liberation struggles are couched in what the blogger Daniel Davies calls the Superman Conditional — that is, they make sense only if one assumes that America possesses a power over world events that is very much not in evidence. The revolutions in the Arab world have revealed the extent to which America’s power in the world is declining, and that decline is making old debates seems superfluous. The liberal imperialists — those like Walzer, Paul Berman, and Samantha Power, who dream of imposing American ideas of human rights and liberal democracy at gunpoint — now seem more absurd than dangerous. And as their influence wanes, so the anti-imperialist Left will be able to spend less time agitating against their delusions.

But the bright side of American decline goes well beyond this. Anti-imperialist politics in the United States has long been based on the belief that because activists here live in the “belly of the beast,” we have a special duty to struggle against our government’s manipulation of events abroad. And for all the historical truth of this position, American Leftists and liberals are not exempt from the broader cultural tendency to see their country as exceptional and supremely powerful, and thereby overstate their importance in global events. But if we can overcome this belief in the face of declining American power, we can also begin to overcome the distortions that US imperialism imposed on its domestic Left — chief among them, the redirection of activist energy away from our own country. In my lifetime, many of the major struggles in left-wing youth politics — especially among middle-class activists — have involved solidarity with struggles elsewhere: the anti-Apartheid movement, the anti-sweatshop movement, the anti–Iraq War movement, and so on. Such expressions of solidarity are important and necessary, but it is equally vital not to neglect the struggles closer to home.

Just as the Middle East was exploding in upheaval, Wisconsin saw a revival of mass protest unlike any we have seen in some time. There were plenty of jokes about the spread of unrest from Cairo to Madison, but perhaps the comparison is less silly than it appears. By revealing the increasing impotence and irrelevance of the American empire, the people of Egypt and Libya helped free us to concentrate on our own domestic struggles. Out of the chaotic swirl of messages that emanated from Tahrir Square after January 25, this is the one that Americans needed to hear most of all: this is our revolution, and we neither want nor need your intervention either for or against us.