Saturday, April 18, 2009

The age of might is on the wane

090415-USAgeOfMightOnWane NEWS COMMENT

Western societies no longer have an appetite for sacrifice.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft


FOR the family of Mr Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, his rescue by special forces was the best possible Easter present. For Americans, it was an exhilarating display of American power and for President Barack Obama, it was a gratifying demonstration that he is not the wimpy pacifist the Republicans called him.

But to a detached observer, this gung-ho adventure in the Indian Ocean is the rule-proving exception. What we have recently seen far more often is what a New York Times headline on the piracy story said last Thursday: “US power has limit”. We are dealing, that is to say, with one of the most important discoveries of our time: The impotence of great might.

Today there is only one hyperpower. The US is, on the face of it, mightier than any other imperial power in history. And imperial is the word: It has been more than 50 years since Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American moral philosopher wrote about the new age of American empire, “however frantically we deny it”.

American military spending is very much greater than 10 countries combined, friend or foe. Even now, 20 years after the Soviet Union began to crumble, the US air force and navy hold an immense number of nuclear warheads, armed and ready to launch — but where? With all that might, the military operations in western Asia have turned out to be far more difficult than Washington originally envisaged. By autumn, it will be eight years since US forces entered Afghanistan, and it has been six since the invasion of Iraq. Even six years is longer than the combined length of American participation in the first and second world wars.

Although the Afghan campaign was originally more justifiable than Iraq , it now looks less winnable. Even in Iraq, the vaunted success of the “surge” may prove deceptive if it persuades the Americans that they can win a permanent military victory there.

This is not as new as we might think. Go back to the heyday of the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union each held a nuclear arsenal that could annihilate the other, or for that matter the whole world. They seemed mightier by far than any other military and imperial powers in history, surely capable of defeating any enemy. But what happened? The Americans were humiliated in Vietnam by a peasant army, and the Russians were humiliated in Afghanistan by another. Two ferocious lions might be ready to fight each other to the death, but could not deal with swarms of gnats.

There are few more startling illustrations of this impotence of might than the pirates, or the country they come from. A hundred years ago, any one of half a dozen imperial powers could have conquered Somalia in a matter of weeks with a couple of gunboats and a few battalions.

Today Somalia has been a collapsed state for nearly 20 years, in lawless confusion that no outside power can or will subdue. It harbours bands of men in light craft armed with rifles who can seize 50,000-tonne tankers flying the flags of western states. And there is almost nothing anyone can do, despite Sunday’s escapade.

Since 1993 and the bloody “Black Hawk down” fiasco in Mogadishu, the Americans have steered well clear of Somalia. They could nuke it flat, but that does not quite meet the case. And that episode is instructive. The Americans were horrified by the loss of 18 of their men, but at least 1,000 Somalis were killed at the same time. Likewise, the Americans have been perturbed by the loss of more than 4,000 of their forces in Iraq, as they were dismayed by nearly 60,000 US dead in Vietnam.

Nothing is more frightening to us than suicide bombing. It is indeed repugnant, but it also proves what the Roman philosopher Seneca said long ago: “The man who is not afraid to die will always be your master.” That applies, above all, to prosperous, modern western societies, which no longer have any appetite for sacrifice and suffering. Is it any wonder we are mighty but weak at once?


From TODAY, World– Wednesday, 15-April-2009


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