The French are in Mali now, being shot at by Islamists armed with the very same weapons that France airdropped into Libya. Either those or the weapons that France sold to Gaddafi in the preceding period when European countries were competing to be his arms dealers. The joke is equally bleak, either way.
In less time than it takes a pop star to go from fresh faced to train wrecked, Saif Gaddafi went from the toast of European academics to a mass murderer, Gaddafi's opposition went from Al Qaeda terrorists to brave rebels, then the brave rebels, many of whom were actually Iraqis, Tunisians and Jordanians, shot up an American diplomatic mission, hooked up with some of Gaddafi's Tuaregs to take over Northern Mali, shot them up and began carving out their own Islamist Emirate.
In barely two years, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, went from screaming that Egyptian children "must feed on hatred" to the toast of foreign diplomatic circles as the same geniuses behind the invasion of Libya try to make the best of handing over the most powerful country in the region into the hands of a terrorist organization.
In that same period, Syria's Assad went from the pages of Vogue and meetings with John Kerry to being the most reviled man in the world. But two years from now, if he survives the worst that the Syrian rebels, most of whom are Al Qaeda or wish they were, you might well find him meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry while his family gets another four pages in Vogue Magazine.
In two years, the evil ruthless dictators who kill and torture their own people have been replaced by ruthless democratically elected dictators who kill and torture their own people. In Egypt and Tunisia things are worse now than they were under the "dictators" and unsurprisingly the one thing that they can all agree on is that it's America's fault.
The press can't be expected to pay much attention to these events. The media will provide the obligatory coverage of Muslim Brotherhood torture chambers in Egypt and the labor riots in Tunisia. But it would really like to spend its time lamenting Israel's fall to the far right by covering the rise of a political party which holds the shocking and outrageous position that the twenty year old peace process has failed and should be wrapped up and put away.
It seemed like only a few weeks ago that the cognoscenti were enthusiastically predicting a new Middle East, sending reporters in droves to be kidnapped and molested at the celebrations of freedom and democracy. And now the new Middle East looks a lot like the old Middle East.
Columnists still pen the occasional column urging patience. Rome wasn't burned down in a day, they say, all revolutions take time. Look how long it took Germany, Russia and Japan to stop killing millions of people and get down to the business of making engines, accidents and wristwatches. They stop by Doha, take in the stores packed full of the finest French and Italian luxury goods, the terrified Filipino maids and the surly Thai workers and proclaim that the Middle East is just like Europe.
Arab Spring fever got the UK and the US, both of whose leaders had replaced unpopular predecessors associated with unpopular Middle Eastern wars, and France, which had been the poster brat for not going into Iraq, so fired up that they decided to bomb Gaddafi in the name of democracy.
Since the UN wasn't about to approve their regime change operation, the Libya liberators bombed the country's air force and then its armored vehicles in the name of protecting civilians. France got so caught in the excitement of protecting civilians, that it began airdropping assault rifles, RPGs and anti-tank missiles, despite the arms embargo. When asked about it, their spokesman explained that the French government was just helping civilians protect themselves. And an anti-tank missile certainly packs a lot of protection.
Now the civilians of Mali are about to come under the protection of some of those civilians and their toys. Between Somalia and Nigeria, Al Qaeda already has far too much of a presence in Africa. But Mali is its biggest footprint yet.
There's no telling what all this will mutate into, but our brief history here suggests that it will be ugly and fast.
Chaos breeds conflict in the region that eventually resolves into tyranny. And then an empire or two falls into the dust and the whole cycle begins again. The Ottoman Empire collapsed, the British Empire faded away like a sad song and the Soviet Union called it quits. Each of those events unleashed a new wave of violence and chaos, nationalistic movements and terrorist groups rushing to take advantage of the new opportunities.
The Arab Spring coincided with the collapse of the fourth empire. The Pax Americana. Hardest hit were the countries closest to the United States. Of the Middle Eastern countries who are close to the United States and aren't oil giants, only Israel and Jordan survived the spring intact. And Jordan isn't out of the woods yet.
The fall of the British Empire destroyed many of the region's monarchies. The fall of the USSR and the US marked the end of the Arab Socialists. And that just leaves the Islamists as the only game in town. But if Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait go under, then a fifth empire will collapse and take them with it. Oil made it possible for backward countries ruled by fat sheiks to become players on a global and regional level. It even made it possible for them to set their sights on colonizing the West. But if the energy revolution finally kicks in and the rest of the world stops crawling to OPEC, then a new wave of chaos will begin again.
The fifth empire, that jumble of slave-built skyscrapers and foreigner-tended oil industries, that mass of overpopulated cities and straggling countrysides, the clutter of minarets and billboards, palm trees and satellite dishes, is writhing in its own chaos, its own madness and violence, but surging out to colonize America and Europe.
While French soldiers battle Salafists in Mali, there are Salafists in the basements of Paris who are planning to do to France what they have done to Mali. And the demographics are on their side. America tried to fix Somalia and now there's a Somali on trial for plotting to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. America tried to fix Iraq and there are plenty of Iraqis locked up in American jails. To say nothing of the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
Those wars occupy our attention, but they are symptoms, not causes. The conflicts that we have seen are all the outcome of a prolonged process of political decay in the West. They are flares warning that power abhors a vacuum and fills it with bullets and bombs, with small wars that get bigger and bigger until they become the war. The big war whose battles will decide who rules and who is ruled.
The war hasn't gotten that far yet. For now we watch from afar while Salafist terrorists take apart the Western and Soviet trained and equipped armies of regional dictators. And then we watch while they fight our armies on their territory. It does not occur to most of those flipping through the channels, watching men in black masks riding Toyota pickups, shooting into the air and beheading their enemies that what is now Aleppo and Timbuktu may one day be London and Paris.