Almost two years ago I was among editors representing many Asian newspapers heading to a meeting with Li Changchun, the Chinese Communist Party's powerful publicity chief.
Personally, the Great Hall of the People and the fortitude of Chinese society mesmerised me - despite many challenges and repeated accusations of corruption and power struggles, China appeared composed as its economy and status continued to race ahead.
We were waiting to hear Li speak of its foreign policy, based on a cautious but slowly shifting agenda yet unambiguously clear in its long-term objectives.
We knew Li was waiting for us because an old jacket with his name on a sticker was draped over a hanger outside the meeting room.
Li spoke frustratingly slowly - reminding me of a Hollywood stereotype of a Chinese emperor. None of our questions seemed to faze him and his perception of history was more far-reaching than I had expected.
There was not much in the way of soundbites, but it was clear that Li saw his country's foreign policy in the context of a world dominated by the military adventures and geopolitical advances and setbacks of the United States. No other country seemed to matter.
A few months after that meeting upheaval struck the Middle East. Its manifestations - revolutions, civil wars, regional mayhem and conflicts of all kinds - reverberated across the world.
Shrinking and rising empires alike took notice. Fault lines were quickly determined and exploited.
Players changed sides or jockeyed to advance their positions as a new Great Game in the resource-rich, strategically vital region seemed set to begin.
The so-called Arab spring was clearly a game-changer.
China was wary for its existing investment in the region - literally in the case of Libya and more figuratively in its long-term relations with Arab and Muslim countries.
It moved with predictable caution - wobbling at times, as over Libya, appearing firmer in Syria, almost entirely aloof in Bahrain.
But for China the space for future political movement is boundless. Unlike the US, a "new" or stagnant Middle East doesn't change the fact that it is barely associated with an atrocious history of military onslaughts or economic exploitation with which the Western powers are undeniably intertwined.
The political transformation in that region may mean China needs to speak a tad louder or with greater clarity but it will hardly occasion a complete shift in the country's policies. It is the interests - and rank in the global pecking order - of the United States which will suffer irreparable damage.
When discussed in narrow political terms history can seem chaotic. But a methodical approach makes reality less confusing and allows us to hazard better predictions about the future. The seemingly unbridled conflict in the Middle East is no exception.
In a review of Francis Logevall's recently published book Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam, Gordon Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post: "Over the centuries, strategic overextension by great powers acting on the periphery of their national interests has hobbled ancient empires and modern states."
Goldstein was referring to US conduct in south-east Asia - where the superpower adopted as its own the disastrous legacy of French colonialism in Indochina, now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Like France before it it was squarely and humiliatingly defeated.
Empires don't crumble overnight, however. The fall of an empire can be as agonisingly long as its rise.
Since the second world war US foreign policy has been largely predicated on military adventures, by severely punishing enemies and by controlling "friends."
Diplomacy was often the icing on the cake of war. Wars seemed to follow similar patterns such as targeting powerless, economically browbeaten and isolated countries.
It was a successful brand while it lasted. It allowed the generals to speak of the invincibility of their military might, the politicians to boast of their global responsibilities and the media to tirelessly promote "American values."
Few seemed to care much for the millions of innocent people who bore the brunt of that supposed quest for democratisation of the "third world," the US equivalent to France's "mission civilisatrice," the quest to civilise the barbarians.
Few US foreign policy disasters are as significant as that of the Middle East. As in south-east Asia, the US "inherited" the region from the fading British and French empires. Such recurring media questions as "who lost Egypt?" point to that sense of ownership.
US early contacts with the region were marred with violence, whether through the support of local dictatorships, financing and arming Israel at the expense of the Palestinians or by getting involved - some say entangled - in lethal wars.
The memory of Iraq's destruction will never fade from the annals of Arab history. It is a dark spot close to that of US support for Israel. As it stands, US-Arab relations are tainted beyond redemption.
The US does not lack bright historians and sharp analysts who might be able to devise an alternative foreign policy. But like many great empires its ability to manoeuvre is restricted by its sheer size and a tendency to act from habit.
US foreign policy is almost stuck when it is required to be most agile. While the Middle East is breaking away from a once impenetrable cocoon and China, Russia and others are attempting to negotiate a new geopolitical settlement, the US is frozen.
It joined in the bombing of Libya because it knew no other alternative to summoning violence when faced with a difficulty. In Syria it refuses to be a conduit for peaceful transition because it is paralysed, haunted by the memories of Iraq and fearful over the fate of Israel.
Even if the US tries to change course, it is shackled by the invasive tentacles of Israel and its powerful domestic pro-Israel lobby.
The US now seems destined to live by the red lines determined by Israel. Israel's own priority is to ensure its own supremacy in the new Middle East.
With the rise of post-revolutionary Egypt its challenges are growing. It fears that a nuclear Iran would deprive it of its only unique edge - its massive nuclear arsenal.
If Iran obtains nuclear technology Israel might have to negotiate with its neighbours in good faith, as an equal partner - a prospect it abhors.
Between the Israeli hammer and the anvil of the imminent decline of all empires the US, which held the Middle East hostage for six decades, is now the hostage of the limitations of its own foreign policy.
Listening to Li Changchun it was clear that China is in no great hurry. Nor are the other powers eyeing the endgame of Middle East upheaval.
President Barack Obama's lecture to the UN general assembly on September 25 referred to democracy and "values" in predictable, self-defeating language. The US has no intention of changing course, or retreating, or simply going away. The empire is entangled in its own legacy. This is to the satisfaction of its many rivals.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).
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