The end of empires

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By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor

In 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, the world celebrated the birth of a new order. For nearly 70 years, the Soviet Union dominated half of Europe and spread the ideology of totalitarian communism throughout the world. Its empire extended across the world, influencing governments through its military and diplomatic power in Africa, Asia and Central America.

To counter the threat, America built its own empire. Like the Soviets, we used our military, diplomatic and economic power to spread our own ideology around the world. Like the Soviet empire, the American empire extended across the world. We built bases and embassies in an effort to expand our influence and shield others from the Soviet threat.

And all too often we embraced some tyrants and dictators while working to stop others. Nowhere was this truer than in Northern Africa and the Persian Gulf. The free flow of oil from those regions was – and is – key to maintaining our military and economic strength. So in the name of national security and cheap oil, we forged relations with the kings, sheiks and dictators of the region while turning a blind eye to their abuse.

We even went to war twice in the past 20 years to secure access to oil. Empires rarely fight for high-minded ideals. More often, they fight to protect access to their sources of power.

That era is over. One by one, the tyrants we’ve tolerated are being deposed.

For those of us who remember the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, this evokes familiar feelings. I remember the thrill of knowing that the specter of communism had begun to recede, and with it the bilateral balance of terror that had divided the world for most of my life. But with that thrill came a fear – we’d lived for so long in that divided world that we couldn’t imagine a world without the Soviet Union. I was just three years into my Air Force career, and like many other people of my generation, I never imagined I’d see that day.

Now, we’re living through another epochal moment in history. Dictators across Africa and the Middle East, including many who enjoyed American support and whose grip on power seemed permanent, are being toppled. From Tunisia to Bahrain, the oppressed are rising up and demanding freedom and a voice in their government. It looks like no country is exempt – as I write, the reign of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi appears to be in its last days. He’s been in control of Libya almost as long as I’ve been alive. As in Egypt with Hosni Mubarak, most Libyans know of no other leader.

We nodded when Tunisia threw off its tyrant, winced a bit at the uprisings in Egypt and now rejoice at the brewing conflict in Libya. But behind all this turmoil lurks a bigger crisis, one that will hit a little closer to home. As each dictator falls, a little piece of American power falls with him. And we have to ask ourselves: who’s next? What if the revolution spreads to Saudi Arabia? What about Kuwait, Oman or Yemen? We rely on these countries to maintain our military presence in the region and our access to oil. If they fall, it’ll likely mean opening relations with new governments that may not be as friendly to us as were their predecessors.

There’s supposedly an old Chinese curse that goes, “may you live in interesting times.” These are truly such times. The world is changing before our eyes, and we must be prepared change with it.

We will have to confront some unpleasant realities, not the least of which is $4-to-$5-per-gallon gasoline – for reference, our allies in Europe routinely pay $7 to $8 per gallon, so even that would be relatively cheap. It may mean a weakening of American influence and reduced military presence overseas. Maintaining an empire is expensive, and if the worst case happens, we won’t be able to keep the machine running for long.

We may even need to face the possibility of being a former superpower in a multi-polar world. In that case, we’ll be in good company – maybe the Russian or British governments could offer us helpful advice or grief counseling.

In any case, the rise of “people power” in the Arab world is something to celebrate. It means the age of monarchies and tyrants is closing, and the new powers in the Middle East are its people.

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