Americans felt free to debate whether they wanted to be directly involved in the conflicts of the greater Middle East as recently as 1967. Talk about the good old days.
A national addiction to oil imports has ended that freedom or at least that illusion. A unilateral and increasingly lonely commitment to help Israel survive in a sea of hostility has also led the United States to create a national history in a region it once let others sort out.
When Britain announced the end of its "East of Suez" presence in 1967 and urged Washington to fill the vacuum, U.S. policymakers agonized and resisted. Until June of that same year, Israel depended more on France for military hardware and nuclear cooperation than on Washington. Iraq nestled in the Soviet sphere of influence while Iran prospered under an American-backed ruler.
Perfect that balance of forces was not. But living in the region around that time, I felt that Washington possessed one huge advantage: The United States did not have to overcome the bitter colonial history that Britain, France, Turkey and others had to work around in dealing with the Arabs. U.S. skepticism about colonial empires worked in America's favor.
Israel's 1967 occupation of Arab territories, the 1973 oil crisis, the overthrow of the shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein's multiple wars of aggression, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and other events changed that: The American debate can no longer be about whether to be involved but rather about how the course and outcome of that involvement are to be managed.
Americans are creating a history that includes not only immediate consequences but ones that may not be felt for years. That is one secondary but salient moral to be drawn from the 7/7 London bombings. Three of the blasts were apparently set off by British citizens of Pakistani descent -- by members, that is, of the diaspora of Muslims drawn in great numbers to the European capitals of former colonial empires.
Aime Cesaire, the incandescent surrealist writer from Martinique, once wrote a play in which African guerrillas move through Paris blowing up statues of colonial-era soldiers and missionaries. No such luck today: It is human beings, not statues, who are being blown up for symbolic effect.
Cesaire's work captured the tortured relations of colonizer and colonized who become absorbed into each other's bloodstreams, collective consciousness and homelands -- as the Muslim ghettoes of Britain and France demonstrate long after the fact of colonialism.
Do not misunderstand. This is not to compare America's current mission in the greater Middle East to colonial conquests of the past. The disappearance from the nation's op-ed pages of the phony debate of a year ago over the desirability of "a new American empire" shows how shallow such thinking is.
But it is equally shortsighted to ignore altogether the implications of taking on this far-reaching mission in lands where the experience of empire is so recent -- and where that experience has been shaped into a misleading but superficially compelling narra- tive of unilateral foreign evil and exploitation.
Empire was far more complex than most nationalist narratives suggest. This emerges clearly from the incredible contrast presented by the selection of London to host the 2012 Olympic games on one day and the murderous bomb blasts in the same city the next.
By playing brilliantly on London's history as a multicultural beacon for all races and religions, the organizers of the British bid turned the Olympic selection committee away from France's justifiable lauding of Paris as a beautiful, luxurious and deserving national site. Britain deployed the virtues of empire to win the competition. France played on the joys of kingdom and lost.
The selection of London implicitly acknowledges the benefits of human contact, even in colonial guise. Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor developed and propagated the philosophy of negritude in the elegant French they perfected in Paris; Kenya's durable economy was built on British foundations; India's democracy has deep roots in the colonial experience, and so on.
None of that saved colonialism, which was morally and economically unsustainable. In fact, ending empire helped fuel the dynamic growth in Europe that drew in immigrant populations from Africa and Asia, which assimilated unevenly, if at all, over the past half-century.
We Americans have lost the innocence -- distance may be a better word -- that we once claimed in the Middle East. We can and do argue over whether that loss is due to historical inevitability, rash decisions, heroic ambition or, as I suspect, a combination of those factors. But we cannot turn back the clock and pretend we have any option but to manage that involvement as best we now can.