Jonathan Schwarz discusses “the standard historical trajectory of imperial elites”:
[A]t a certain point they either (1) forget the power they can wield outside their country ultimately derives from a healthy society beneath them, or (2) understand that but decide they’d rather be comparatively more powerful within a poorer society and less powerful outside.This articulates and clarifies a whole bunch of things I’ve been coming to suspect for a very long time.
To understand choice #2 it’s useful to look at an extreme example, like Saudi Arabia. Certainly it has the natural wealth to be able to oppose Israel effectively. And you’d assume their elites want to do that, given that they’re always screeching about it. But effective opposition would require Saudi society to be internally far more democratic, educated and egalitarian. So the Saudi princes have decided they’d prefer their country to be a weak, poor backwater if that’s what’s required for them to each own nine palaces. As William Arkin said about our new $20 billion arms sale to the Saudis:U.S. officials say the United States will seek assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will not store its new Joint Direct Attack Munitions—the satellite-guided bombs—at northern air bases, where they could threaten Israel.The same thing is true in the rest of the Arab world. For instance, at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967, as Israel was bombing Egyptian airfields, the Egyptian air defense system was actually turned off. The Egyptian government had done this because they were more worried about internal enemies than Israel—they thought some rebel Egyptian military forces might be trying to shot down the plane of the Defense Minister, and didn’t want the rebels to be able to find out where it was.
Israel needn’t worry. The Saudi military is even less dangerous than the gang who couldn’t shoot straight…it’s not just incompetence when it comes to the Saudi military. The Saudi monarchy has methodically focused its military on pomp and equipment and spiffy uniforms, ensuring that it not acquire any real offensive capacity or the ability to operate as a coherent force. It does not want a competent, independent military contemplating a coup.
Egyptian elites could have avoided this kind of internal conflict by having a democratic country with civilian control of the military, but who wants that? Far more enjoyable to be autocrats who turn off their air defense system RIGHT WHEN THEY’RE BEING BOMBED.
America’s elites are, at heart, the same way. They’d prefer to be emirs and kings running a shambling catastrophe of a country than moderately rich men in Sweden.