Juan Cole writes:
The United States, castigated by its critics as recently as a decade ago as a “hyper-power,” is now so weak and isolated on the world stage that it may cast an embarrassing and self-defeating veto of Palestinian membership in the United Nations. Beset by debt, mired in economic doldrums provoked by the cupidity and corruption of its business classes, and on the verge of withdrawing from Iraq and ultimately Afghanistan in defeat, the U.S. needs all the friends it can get. If he were the visionary we thought we elected in 2008, President Obama would surprise everyone by rethinking the issue and coming out in favor of a U.N. membership for Palestine. In so doing, he would help the U.S. recover some of its tarnished prestige and avoid a further descent into global isolation and opprobrium.
It is often the little things that trip up empires and send them spiraling into geopolitical feebleness. France’s decision to react brutally to the Algerian independence movement from 1954 arguably helped send its West African subjects running for the exits, much to the surprise and dismay of a puzzled Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Empires are always constructed out of a combination of coercion and loyalty, and post-colonial historians often would prefer not to remember the loyalty of compradors and collaborators. But arguably it is the desertion of the latter that contributes most decisively to imperial collapse.
Thus, it is highly significant that an influential Saudi prince warned the United States that a veto of Palestine at the U.N. could well cost the latter its alliance with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is the world’s swing petroleum producer and has done Washington many favors in the oil markets, and although such favors were seldom altogether altruistic, Riyadh’s good will has been a key element in U.S. predominance.
The House of Saud has other options, after all. It has been thinking hard about whether its ideological differences with the Chinese Communist Party are not outweighed by common interests. Among these mutual goals is the preservation of a model of authoritarian, top-down governance combined with rapid economic advance to forestall popular demands for participation, as an alternative to Western liberalism. For its part, China has invested $15 billion in the Arab world in recent years and is an increasingly appealing destination for Arab capital. Beijing is supporting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ initiative for recognition in the U.N.