Last week, I closed by describing several CIA/state department actions in the 1950s that many citizens might find shocking or disturbing. Helping overthrow democratically-elected governments in second-and-third-world countries in order to install brutal dictators who were friendly to U.S. foreign interests… this seems like the opposite of what we imagine ourselves to be. It is not my goal, in telling you these stories, to “run down America” or solely to focus on the negative. My goal is to help you understand the present. Frankly, unless you know the story about the Shah of Iran and Mohammed Mossadegh, it is impossible to understand just why people in Iran have hated us so much in the past.
Now I’m going to tie it together in the present. Notice that the U.S. trained and equipped Ho Chi Minh when his Vietnamese guerrillas were fighting our enemies the Japanese, in WWII. You doubtlessly know that we also trained and equipped Saddam Hussein when he was fighting our enemies - the Iranians - in the 1980s, and Osama bin Laden when he was fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan (also in the ‘80s.) Whether we fought with or against any specific group often depended on our national interests at the time - which a hegemon must protect even more than countries normally do.
Let’s talk about Afghanistan. The Soviets invaded them, in 1980, and fought there for almost a decade - it was a quagmire for them, roughly equivalent to our own experience in Vietnam. Muslim fighters from around the world went there to help the Afghans resist. They were called mujahedeen, “fighters for righteousness,” engaged in jihad. And we trained and equipped them, because they were fighting communist Russia. Heck, if you recall, they were the good guys in Rambo III.
Now, there were a lot of factors in the collapse of the USSR… but this was one of the major ones. Stuck in an unwinnable war, forced to stretch their own resources, losing support of their citizens at home, their economy collapsing… this set the stage for the Russian people to rebel. The mujahedeen helped topple a superpower.
Here comes the heavy part.
What is hegemony? Being globally dominant financially, militarily, and politically. What did Osama bin Laden attack on 9/11?
The World Trade Center. The Pentagon. Washington, DC (though that one was foiled by brave passengers).
The attacks were deeply symbolic of destroying American hegemony. And what was bin Laden’s goal? To do the same thing to the U.S. he had done to the USSR: entice us into a series of unwinnable wars which would cause us to overextend our resources, thus crippling our economy and hopelessly dividing our citizens, turning them against the government and leading to our collapse. This would be a speeding up of the natural process of hegemony: once you get it, you start losing it, by virtue of the things you have to do to hold on to it. I’m still not sure it didn’t work, just in slow motion for the past 20 years.
In 1988, Henry Kissinger said, “Peace requires either hegemony or balance of power. We have neither the resources nor the stomach for the former. The only question is how much we have to suffer before we realize this.”
Hegemony is not permanent. What happens when it is gone? Either a return to balance of power, or a new hegemon. The question is, can Americans do what Brits have been forced to do since their empire collapsed - be content to be ONE OF the main countries, but not THE main country? If you haven’t noticed, older Brits are still having a hard time dealing with this. And who would be the main country then? That is a justifiably scary question.
Regardless, though, it does not help to bury our heads in the sand. It is very important to use history to understand the present and the future.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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