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Shying Away from Power By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 22, 2002


INSTITUTIONAL ORTHODOXY USUALLY LAGS BEHIND EVENTS, so it is no surprise that our foreign policy and defense thinking, shaped by the fifty years of the Cold War, has not come to terms with the reality of American military, cultural, and economic dominance.

The fact is: the power of the United States today is much like that of the Roman Empire around the second century AD.  There is no country in the world today whose military can even begin to challenge the range and lethality of America's.  The U.S. economy drives the world, and everyone from China to Africa hungers for American popular culture.  Today all global roads lead to D.C. and Manhattan, which is why, of course, the terrorists struck those two cities.

Yet some of our politicians and diplomats and foreign policy "experts" all act as though we still live in 19th century Europe, when England, Germany, France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire all had to be kept in balance, and so conflict was ritualized into the subtle gestures, symbols, and innuendo of diplomatic dickering and horse-trading.  The futility of war between roughly equal powers was seemingly confirmed by the carnage of World War I, which created an anxiety about using force that obviously paved the way for Hitler.  And during the Cold War the ability of nuclear powers to obliterate each other made us wary of employing force without inhibitions, no matter how just or necessary for our national interests.

In that sort of world, diplomatic symbolism, consensus-building, coalitions, alliances, proxy wars, and covert operations all were necessary to avoid a collision of equally destructive powers.  But we are not in that world anymore.  Russia or China could go insane and destroy the United States in an act of collective suicide, but that is a remote contingency.  Such fantasies aside, no conventional military power can seriously challenge America, nor can terrorists fighting an "asymmetrical" war ultimately prevail.

Yet the defense and foreign policy establishments, regardless of the political party, seem not to have grasped this reality, at least judging by the way they are handling the current crises in the Middle East.  Accepting that "unilateralism" is a dirty word, and seemingly embarrassed by our power, we spend time and effort soliciting the good will and cooperation of dysfunctional states that would collapse without our support, and begging the permission of so-called allies that refuse to put their military money where their active mouths are.  The Gulf War taught us that the U.S. could have defeated Iraq on its own, but that the European and Arab "coalition" members were obstacles to accomplishing the war's necessary finale, the removal of Hussein.

Meanwhile we confirm the ridiculous pretensions to status and influence of states and militaries that have about as much business on the global stage as Woody Allen does playing with the Knicks.  Consider the way we treat Arafat, a terrorist thug ruling over a corrupt gang that has no intention of creating a legitimate state and economy.  Feeding the pretense that he is a "head of state" has just worsened the crisis in Israel, leading him to believe that if he plays the Western game of "peace talks" and "special envoys" and "diplomacy" and "national aspirations" long enough, the West will tire of Israel and leave it to its fate, just as the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam.

Likewise with Iraq's Hussein, who currently is playing the negotiating game over UN inspectors.  Of course the time wasted is used by Hussein to squirrel away whatever weapons he's managed to amass so far, after which inspectors will be allowed in and manipulated like a chump at a three-card-monte game.  And what are we doing?  "Consulting" with regimes whose very existence depends on our good will, and who view our solicitude for their sensibilities as a weakness to exploit.  Our so-called "statesmanship" is more likely to invite contempt than respect.

Of course the "experts" decry such talk as a dangerous simplification that ignores the nuances and delicate complexity of international relations, which only they have mastered.  But simplification is one of the advantages of overwhelming power, for in the last analysis, lethal force is the final arbiter of conflict, and there simply is no military power in the Middle East that can resist America, either alone or in concert.  During the Gulf War the same experts, anxiously calibrating future repercussions for the "balance of power," left a homicidal maniac controlling Iraq--the same experts, by the way, who before the war predicted 50,000 American casualties.  They returned last October, with their dire predictions of the superhuman Afghan fighter and the inhospitable climate and geography of the "graveyard of empires."  And we hear them again, with their nail-chewing over the "Arab street" and vague threats of "destabilization" from corrupt regimes we'd be better off without anyway.

Rather than shying away from the reality of American power and its implications, we ought to be having now a collective discussion about the goals and purposes of employing that power, as these are determined by Americans and their interests.  Of course great power can incite an equally great hubris, but our own democratic ideals and procedures will provide the best check on such pretensions.  If we are sure of the rightness of our motives and goals, if we know the world will be better off in the long run if we act--ask the Kuwaitis and the Bosnians--then we can use force with confidence and accept the tragic costs and sacrifices that always and everywhere attend even the just use of violence.

But this will be hard to do when the foreign policy and defense establishment is locked in old ways of thinking and seemingly hampered by doubts about American power and purposes and ideals.  Here too Rome is instructive, for the second-century AD is where Gibbon began his description of Rome's decline.  One critical factor in Rome's decay was the weakening of faith in the ideals for which power was used, a loss of confidence in what was worth killing and dying for that left Romans uninterested in bearing the burden of their power and ideals.  If we are to avoid the same fate, we need to determine right now what we believe, and whether or not our values are better than those of our enemies and will improve the world when we act on them.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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