In such a potentially tumultuous situation, the president and his people are committed to a perilous high-wire act without a net. It involves bringing to bear all the power and savvy left to the last superpower on Earth to prevent some part of the world from spinning embarrassingly out of control, lest the president’s opponent be handed a delectable “October surprise.”
Keep in mind that, despite the president’s reputation as a visionary speaker, in global terms his has distinctly been an administration of managers. The visionaries came earlier. They were the first-term Bushites, including George W., Dick, and Donald, each in his own way globally bonkers, and all of them and their associates almost blissfully wrong about the nature of power in our world. (They mistook the destructive power of the U.S. military for global power itself.) As a consequence, they blithely steered the ship of state directly into a field of giant icebergs.
Think of that wrecking crew, in retrospect, as the three stooges of geopolitical dreaming. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, in particular — as well as the hubris that went with the very idea of a “global war on terror” — were acts of take-your-breath-away folly that help explain why the Bush administration was MIA at the recent Republican convention (as was, of course, the Iraq War). In the process, they drove a stake directly through the energy heartlands of the planet, leaving autocratic allies there gasping for breath and wondering what was next. Since 2009, the managers of the Obama administration have been doing what managers do best: fiddling with the order of the deck chairs on our particular Titanic. This might be thought of as managing the Bush legacy.
The problem was that in much of the world an older order, linked to the Cold War scheme of things, was finally coming unglued. A combination of the Bush invasions of the Eurasian mainland and the way the U.S. financial sector stormed the planet with a vast Ponzi scheme of bogus financial derivatives did much to promote the process, especially in what neoconservatives liked to call “the arc of instability” (before they offered a striking demonstration of just what instability was really all about). In a sense, what they dubbed their “democracy agenda” — though it had little enough to do with democracy — played a distinct role in unifying much of the Arab world in opposition to its Washington-backed one-percenters. In this way, the Arab Spring was launched against Ben Ali-ism, and Mubarak-ism, against, that is, an American system of well-armed regional autocrats. (The unraveling of Syria is just a reminder that what we are watching is the disintegration of the full Cold War set-up in the Middle East, including the less significant Soviet part of it.)
Back in 2004, Egyptian diplomat Amr Moussa warned the Bush administration that its invasion of Iraq had opened “the gates of hell.” Of course, Washington paid him no heed. He was neither an autocrat nor a soldier, but the secretary-general of the meaningless Arab League, so what were his credentials to explain reality to them? As it happened, he couldn’t have been more on the mark and they more in the dark. Unfortunately, it took some time, two minority insurgencies, much chaos, millions driven into exile, a bitter sectarian civil war (now being repeated in Syria), and morgues filled with dead bodies before the Arab Spring would be launched. Though that movement was named for a season of renewal, its name was apt in another sense entirely: a whole system that had long held in place a key region of the planet was being sprung loose.