Nowadays, when Americans think “superpower” only one thing comes to mind: Marvel superhero movies. Captain America is “the bomb”; actual America is where you might drop one—or casually leave it at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, or detonate two outside the Kabul Airport, thwarting an American evacuation from the 13th century. It’s not a good sign when a nation must rely on its comic books as a show of strength. Disney Plus is not a sensible or fearsome first line of defense.
Visions of Pax Americana today are fantasies. Citizens of Ancient Rome felt protected no matter where they travelled. Such was the knee-buckling fear of Roman retaliation. Americans do not travel with the same assurances. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 kicked off with the taking of 53 American hostages for 444 days. Other kidnappings and imprisonments have followed in other, mostly Islamic societies. Hundreds now appear to be trapped in Afghanistan. In no case have the hostage-takers quaked from the threat of America’s wrath.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently overturned the convictions of the four men responsible for the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The grisly, reprehensible act occurred shortly after 9/11. Other accomplices to the crime have never been prosecuted. The barbarians who carried out the execution on video took special pleasure in the knowledge that Pearl was Jewish. None believe they will ever face extradition to the United States to stand trial for the murder of an American citizen. Nor is their sleep disturbed by the thought that American assassins will do to them what the Israelis did to Palestinian terrorists who massacred its Olympic team in the 1972 Munich games: hunt down the killers, one by one.
Given the recent events in Afghanistan, detaining Americans doesn’t come with a price, and the world knows it. So, too, do Americans. It’s the reason why they are much more circumspect when traveling abroad. Masks are worn, but not entirely for COVID-19 purposes. All that anti-American animus can feel more threatening than an invisible virus, enough so to make Americans long for Canadian passports.
The days of a mighty America ended with the Cold War, and the perception of an invincible America has been declining ever since. The Greatest Generation, the landing on Normandy, the various stand-offs with the Soviets—all are distant memories. When the Iron Curtain came down, America replaced it with designer drapes. We have always had the weaponry. But have we finally lost the will?
Vietnam was a guerrilla war ill-suited for G.I. Joes. Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq presented highly motivated enemies committed to millennial struggles—essentially, wars without a clock. (Operation Desert Storm, a seven-month campaign commencing 1990, happened in Iraq, but not against Muslim extremists.) Unlike the Germans, Japanese, and Soviets, Islamists do not dread doomsday scenarios. Mutually Assured Destruction is just another war strategy—not MAD, but “fine with us.”
Armed struggles against terrorists who don’t wear uniforms, never attended a war college, and believe that Mohammad is their canonical general has required America to adopt new rules of engagement (as Israel has done since 1967). All bets are off in deserts, caves, and mountains. Troop movements house-to-house in sunbaked, mud-brick buildings; suicide bombers wrapped in full-length chadors. Such asymmetric battlefields corrode human souls, the crazy-making realization that civilian casualties is a given, and that the enemy views its children not as collateral damage but as just one of many improvised weapons.
Last week in Kabul, an American drone killed 10 civilians, including 7 children. During World War II, storming Omaha Beach presented many challenges, but at least American commandos didn’t have to dodge children building sandcastles. Nowadays, moral depravity ought to be a job requirement for enlistment. After all, beheadings are as routine as flesh wounds, intended to rattle American farm-boys. It worked. Many American soldiers remain haunted by the sight of human heads lining village streets—the signature Islamist welcome mat to invading infidels, the message unmistakable: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
This is the kind of warfare where the field manuals of Carl Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu get tossed away. What’s the appropriate military response to the spilling of blood by such barbaric means? A head for a head?
How did America find itself in this situation? A superpower in repose. Quietly hanging up its shield as the world’s policeman. Turning its national cheek. It’s a relatively new global perception of 21st century America. No longer a dependable ally. Bored by foreign affairs. Growing more isolated; a self-quarantine not due to the pandemic. Flashy armaments stockpiled in a country with a pre-disposition toward demilitarization. The soft walk halted to a standstill; the big stick viewed as an albatross.
Clearly, our departure from Afghanistan took place not on our own terms. Fleeing in the middle of the night without pausing to evacuate our embassy and citizens. A most unbecoming retreat. Several NATO countries publicly expressed their astonishment at America’s dereliction of duty. Combat troops who served honorably now left to wonder whether all of that valor and sacrifice was wasted given the craven exit from Kabul. The Taliban gleefully waved goodbye to our white flag. Don’t be surprised if they soon celebrate our escape by torching the red, white, and blue.
Have we just witnessed the last time America is prepared to deploy troops on foreign soil, to draw lines and secure those lines, to make promises and actually keep them, to stand for principles and uphold them, to actually engage with known and sworn enemies—face-to-face, and not just with the occasional drone strike where killing is reduced to a video game? It feels as though the United States has retired from active duty, winding down its once superpower status, watching from the sidelines, inviting other nations to take the lead. We have perhaps entered a trial period of sustained pacifism.
Of course, it takes two to pacify, unless one is willing to be the patsy. The War on Terror hasn’t ended. All the players are still around: al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS-K, Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah. Hot spots around the globe have not cooled. Oceans are not the buffers they once were; they don’t necessarily make a nation safe. Terrorists are unlikely to conclude that we have called it quits, claiming victory without a signed armistice. When they look at a map, they still see “The Great Satan”—Infidel Number 1. We may have left the region, but they know how to find us, get our attention, tempt us to return. Our semi-retirement is likely to be short-lived.
Of course, we’ve been transitioning to more passive leanings for some time now. After Osama bin-Laden was assassinated… and the drone strikes in Yemen that killed Muslim cleric and American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki… and the one in Iraq that took out Iran’s Quds Force Commander, Qasem Soleimani… and with the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, nearly forgotten in Guantanamo Bay… and, especially, the passage of 20 years since the Twin Towers were brought down, we have acted as if our enemies are becoming harder to identify—or perhaps we’re just reluctant to admit that we have enemies. Maybe we’ve just become inured to them.
More likely, we have been mugged by the realities of the Middle East.
For most Americans, the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, emotionally at least, a long time ago. We’ve been signaling an incremental withdrawal—from the entire world—for several years now. President Clinton was reluctant and then late in fashioning an American response to the genocide in Bosnia, wanted no part at all of the one in Rwanda, and took no action after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and finally the one at the USS Cole in 2000. Both the Trump and Biden administrations were eager to get American boots out of the rocky, desolate terrain that beckoned after 9/11. Leaving behind such a strategic airfield as Bagram is not one of America’s shrewdest real estate decisions. We turned out the lights and took-off under cover of darkness, without leaving a note. With September 11, 2021 as our timetable, what was the urgency for an earlier departure on July 5, 2021?
There has been no explanation.
What we have now is a foreign policy that would have been anathema to presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and even George W. Bush (the first three are Democrats). Imagine asking hardcore terrorists, after a 20-year war without surrender, permission to allow American citizens to receive safe passage to the airport. Wheels went up and many were left behind. Our Afghan exodus was not a model of the “blink-first” game theory employed by President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
These earlier presidents shared a vision of America as a global force for good. But when the fight is brought to the United States—whether it be in Pearl Harbor or at the World Trade Center—Americans will answer the call, narrow the distance of those oceans, and unleash a biblical end-of-days that reduce such places as Hiroshima, Dresden, Baghdad, and Kabul to dust. The decimations so complete, these nations need our help to rebuild.
A new mindset about America’s place in the world started in the Obama administration. To a large extent, he rejected the premises of American Exceptionalism—that America, and its democratic ideals, was a unique experiment in self-governance. What made America “exceptional” came with the responsibility to serve as a protector of freedom on the world stage.
Obama didn’t fully buy into it. Exceptionalism was, to him, imperialism made to sound respectable. He was too instinctively anti-colonialist to fall for that. He famously said that America is no more exceptional than other nations, “the Brits” and “the Greeks,” for instance, who believe in their own exceptionalism. Yes, he affirmed America’s “core set of values,” but then reverted to the moral relativism that marked his administration, “recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.”
Who was he talking about? What countries compare to us with their own “good ideas”—Syria? Greece, which at the time was mired in a sovereign debt crisis that nearly toppled the entire European financial system? Did he mean “work collectively” with Iran? Was he anticipating “compromising” with the Taliban? “Imperfect” we may be, but who, in Obama’s mind, has come closer to achieving a more perfect union?
His actions demonstrated his ambivalence. Almost immediately upon taking office, he traveled to Cairo to apologize to the Arab world for America’s longstanding meddling in their affairs. Perhaps that’s why he declined to offer assistance to the Green Revolution in Iran—a bizarre instance in which America ensured the survival of a brutal theocracy and an avowed enemy, by abandoning a grassroots human rights movement that preferred Western values to nuclear aspirations.
But that would be an America that imposed its will on the world, and openly favored democracies over repressive regimes. Like his mothballing of the bust of Winston Churchill outside the Oval Office, this was not a concept of America Obama wanted to showcase.
More American hesitations and missteps followed. A red line in Syria disappeared, giving a green light to President Assad’s genocide of his own people. The same misjudgment caused America to lead from behind in Libya, which, by September 11, 2012, culminated in terrorist attacks in Benghazi, resulting in four deaths, including an American diplomat. We were silent in Sudan as a genocide went unabated. And yet America was noisy when it came to badgering Israel about how it should be allowed to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism—a demand that no nation on Earth would accept, including the United States. Democracy does not exist in Gaza or within the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And yet Obama was always keen to lecture a democratic Israel while making no demands of the Palestinians.
No wonder he didn’t veto U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 in his last days in office. Yes, Congress, with Obama’s backing, supplied Israel with weapons and cooperated in military exercises and intelligence gathering. But Obama also looked the other way when the United Nations declared all of Jerusalem to be occupied territory, and Israeli settlements illegal, without denouncing Palestinian terror.
President Obama’s attitude toward the Arab Spring in late 2010, early 2011, was a reminder how little he comprehended the Arab street. Like most people, he rooted for those mostly young people on social media and in Egypt’s Tahrir Square who wanted to bring freedom to their repressive societies. But what was going to replace it? Anyone who has ever paid much attention to polling in the Middle East knows that democracy does not favor Muslim teenagers who want more access to Spotify. In any democratic election, rare though they may be, the Muslim Brotherhood will end up as the peoples’ choice. And with those victories comes the end of democracy. This is precisely what happened in Egypt until President Sisi, yet another autocrat, mercifully, retook control of the country.
Why “mercifully?” Well, the Muslim Brotherhood is a band of brothers for a reason. Like we saw with Hamas in Gaza, they celebrate their election conquests by tossing opponents off rooftops, disbanding the judiciary, and stifling any semblance of a free press. And God help apostates and anyone crazy enough to pray in a direction not pointing toward Mecca.
Obviously, President Obama was no practitioner of realpolitik. But what did he think was going to happen in the aftermath of Arab Spring? The dark consequences of moral relativism, a political philosophy that Obama furtively favored, is that no world leader, no matter how ruthless, will ever qualify as a despot. America is never in a position to judge, and none of the world’s problems happens under its watch.
The Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap was yet another example of a nation indifferent to right versus wrong. Winning the War on Terror was no moral imperative, either. Five high-ranking Taliban operatives were released from Guantanamo in exchange for an American soldier, Bergdahl, who left his post and wandered toward the enemy as if on some private peace initiative. Six American soldiers were killed searching for him.
When news of the exchange became public, President Obama gave a Rose Garden address, with Bergdahl’s father standing beside him, treating the moment like a humanitarian milestone. An email to Bergdahl’s parents, from their son, before his capture read: “The horror that is America is disgusting.”
In his court-martial, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to “desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice still justified the exchange, stating that he served with “honor and distinction.” Yet, he was dishonorably discharged. Was his desertion honorable or heroic in the eyes of his Command-in-Chief? Bergdahl received no prison time.
An impressive set of contradictions. The moral categories are blurred beyond recognition.
It’s becoming harder to distinguish between good and evil these days. America doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. Remember, we’re the one democracy seriously considering the elimination of local police—just as crime rates having been rising steadily. If law breakers still exist, why would a nation do away with law enforcement? Meanwhile, President Biden has deemed white supremacy “the most lethal threat to our homeland,” tantamount to domestic terrorism. Lethal? Like al-Qaeda, lethal? Where, precisely, in our homeland is that true? And if true, shouldn’t we keep the police around to make arrests?
It’s difficult to know what’s first on our list of national priorities when an “equity,” “inclusion,” and America-hating ethos is overtaking our school systems, redefining the role of mainstream media, and threatening the balance sheets of corporate America. The Black Lives Matter movement, Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, intersectionality on campuses, the politics of identity in the public square, all clearly see only one global bad guy: the United States. With such a unifying indictment, under what moral authority does America have the right to defend or denounce anyone?
Confusing times in America. Pulling down statues has become the dominant metaphor for a nation without patriotism. A house in disorder. Democratic principles scrambled. Our Olympic athletes turn away from the American flag while our professional athletes snub the national anthem by taking a knee. Not exactly the gestures of a people grateful for the freedoms this nation guarantees and opportunities it bestows—especially for professional athletes. America is unforgiven; meanwhile, global tyrants have free rein to make dissenters disappear.
For all the strongman bluster of President Trump, he, too, made several disastrous decisions that tarnished America’s moral standing on the world stage. He all but disengaged from NATO—for economic reasons alone. Yes, European countries should pay their fair share in the defense of their continent. But since when has America discarded national security priorities and withdrawn its helping hand to fellow democracies in order to save a buck? No one expressed sticker shock over the Marshall Plan, which may have been America’s finest hour.
Much more tragic was Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Northern Syria, leaving them as easy marks for Turkish slaughter, and resulting in the release of ISIS prisoners. No reminders need be necessary, but from the outset, the Kurds served on the front lines in the fight against ISIS—yet another terrorist group with a penchant for beheadings. The bravery of the Kurds saved American lives. And like the Afghan interpreters left behind in Baghdad, the Kurds experienced the awe not of America’s firepower, but its contempt.
Who would want to do America’s dirty work now?
Perhaps there won’t be dirty work to delegate anymore. A world filled with bad actors might graciously accept America’s apology. Our retreat might convince everyone to leave us alone. Besides, we’re too busy scrubbing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln’s names from our school buildings, while conducting manhunts for white supremacists. With those urgent assignments, we’re no threat or use to anyone.
A nation can easily forget itself—lose its identity, disregard its history, abandon its values, and misplace its mojo. If no longer a superpower, and without the drive to return to global relevance, what does the United States stand for anymore? Terrorists might end up answering that question for us once they resume testing our resolve and pricking away at our pride.
Captain America is just a strawman on the silver screen. There’s still a nation with the same name, albeit one, at least for the time being, that has seemingly misplaced its shield.