A quick glance at the news from the real world and it’s not hard to see why the media-consuming public of the United States appears willing to lose itself in the fantastic miasma created by saturation coverage of the Disney-for-adults spectacle of a British royal wedding.
There’s nothing new about the decline of the erstwhile empire whose tawdry baubles of lapsed grandeur will be on show at Westminster Abbey on Friday. But things have over the past decade or so begun to take a turn for the worse in the empire that replaced Britannia as ruler of the wave — rendering all the more bizarre Americans’ endless fascination with the coupling and uncoupling of the descendents of a King they overthrew some 235 years ago. Perhaps it is the fact that the U.S. has shouldered the lion’s share of what Kipling called “the White Man’s Burden” for the past half century that results in the strange anomaly that Britain’s Royal nuptials garner more interest on these shores, and more coverage in the American media, than they do over in Blighty.
A single day’s headlines from this week certainly tell a story of contemporary imperial decline, from which the high-camp spectacle of a Royal wedding might offer a welcome retreat for many:
- In Afghanistan, some 500 Taliban fighters escape from Kandahar Prison just in time for the annual “fighting season”, by digging a 1,000 yard tunnel out of the lockup. But in the grand scheme of things, we might well shrug: They were going to be freed sooner or later (sooner, probably) as the U.S. and Britain’s Afghan war, now in its eleventh year, wends its way inexorably towards some sort of negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
- A new tranche of WikiLeaks documents reveals all sorts of uncomfortable details of the operations of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo. Once upon a time, that might have dented the international credibility of the detention program, but previous revelations have long-since drained the system at Guantanamo of any international credibility. (Why else would President Obama have come into office promising to close it down in order to restore lost U.S. standing in the world? Don’t ask what happened to that promise.)
- Most revealing among the new Guantanamo documents, perhaps, is the suggestion that U.S. interrogators see any ties to Pakistan‘s Inter-Services Intelligence agency as a sign of links with terrorism. But wait, isn’t the ISI the key U.S. ally in the war on al-Qaeda? Oh well…
- In Iraq, where the U.S. has spent a fortune in blood and treasure to stand up a democratically elected government, America now waits to hear from that government whether U.S. troops will be allowed to remain in the country beyond New Year’s Eve. But the democratically-elected Iraqi government is closer to Tehran than it is to Washington and is dependent on avowedly anti-American coalition partners such as the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It’s hard to bet on U.S. troops being asked to stay, even if Washington believes their presence is necessary.
- On the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there is no reason to expect any progress, because the basic demands of the two sides remain too far apart. Yet, President Obama is reportedly considering a new public speech on the issue. That’s because the Palestinian Authority — perhaps having learned from the example of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in defying Washington when it demanded a settlement freeze — is taking the question of Palestinian statehood to the UN General Assembly in September, ignoring the Obama Administration’s pressure to desist. Saying no to Washington is getting ever easier.
- Libya is perhaps the military engagement that best exemplifies the decline in Western power. The U.S. and Britain, together with France, have committed themselves to getting rid of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, yet the forces they have been willing to commit to that end are unlikely to achieve that goal any time soon. It looks like becoming a protracted war that further undermines the idea that the Western military involvement settles matters in distant conflicts. The limited commitment, of course, is not simply a function of being overstretched by engagements elsewhere; it’s a reflection of the fact that the Anglo-French-American alliance is reluctant to take ownership of yet another protectorate plagued by what would likely be a messy civil war. The writ of empire simply ain’t what it used to be.
- Syria is one of those turbulent countries in an increasingly turbulent region that epitomizes the paralysis facing the empires of old: Even as President Bashar al-Assad sends tanks to confront demonstrators, and even though he is an ally of Iran who has long resisted Western designs in the region, nobody’s seriously thinking about taking action to depose his regime. That’s because the Western powers, and even Israel, prefer to the stability and predictability of the regime in Damascus to creating a power vacuum that they fear could be filled by the Muslim Brotherhood. But as he drenches his streets in blood, at least Bashar al-Assad won’t be invited to the British Royal wedding. The same couldn’t be said for Bahrain‘s Crown Prince or for the Saudi royals who’re enabling his brutal crackdown on dissent. (The Bahraini declined the invitation so as to avoid triggering protests; Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz is expected to be present.)
And that’s just a sampling of bad news stories from the last few days. They’re accompanied, of course, by a cacophony of complaint from Washington’s pundits and politicians about why President Obama isn’t decisively deploying force to remake the world to more satisfactory specifications, as if the declining U.S. ability to impose its will is a product of fecklessness in the White House rather than of a long-term shift in the global balance of power. Perhaps the attraction of Friday’s pomp and circumstance, and of the kitschy future king-marries-commoner narrative, is the fantasy of, at least, momentarily restoring the illusion of a lost order. But the grim reality is one of Western imperial decline. Why worry about that, though, when you could be thinking about what Kate will wear?