Imagining American Leadership

Almost one hundred million American households can watch Hitler lose that war, again, every single day, thanks the Hearst-ABC-Disney History Channel (now just called History) and Discovery’s Military Channel (now called the American Heroes Channel) – that’s their default programming. The war against the Japanese, in the Pacific, gets less coverage, and there’s not much at all on Korea and Vietnam, and very little, so far, on our two wars against Iraq, or on what we’re still doing in Afghanistan – and forget that time we sent our troops into Panama, guns blazing away, to grab that Noriega fellow, or that time we so convincingly conquered the tiny island semi-nation of Granada, somewhere or other in the Caribbean, to show Castro a thing or two. Our adventures in Kosovo don’t get much attention either – we bombed the bad guys, and the Chinese embassy there, by mistake, from a distance. That was a matter of geopolitical positioning. Heroics had nothing to do with it.

That these two cable channels thrive, selling every available thirty-second slot to eager advertisers, shows that Americans really do want to think of themselves as heroic, saving the world, and the case of Hitler, specifically saving our beleaguered but clever good friends, the Brits, and saving even the worthless but stylish French. We were the good guys, and thus the War in the Pacific gets less emphasis for obvious reasons. There we mainly saved the damned Chinese, and General Curtis LeMay’s bright idea, firebombing Tokyo until there wasn’t much left, came close to being a war crime, what with a half a million rather unlucky and bewildered civilians dead and five million more homeless. Was that man a hero? He wanted to use nukes against North Vietnam and China in the late sixties, and in 1968 he was George Wallace’s running mate, so he’s a bit toxic. And we did use those two atomic bombs on Japan, making us the only nation on earth that has ever actually dropped The Bomb – wiping out two whole cities, from a safe distance away. All we say about that now is that the whole business was regrettable, but sadly necessary. Heroics had nothing to do with that, and thus that war on the other side of the world presents too many problems for the American Heroes Channel. Ambiguity negates heroics. It’s best to stick with Hitler, as evil as ever was or ever could be, and that absurd clown, Mussolini – and just not mention Dresden. We saved the world. Damn, those were the days.

That’s what people want to remember, and that’s what people will sit through endless reverse-mortgage commercials to watch, again and again – American heroes, without any ambiguity, and them, because of those heroes, America leading the world. The one leads to the other. That is, after all, what we won when we took care of Hitler and, on the side, took care of the Japanese. We emerged from the war the richest and most powerful nation on earth, the protector of all that was good and decent, and the only nation that could lead things. Of course that idealistic but somehow absurd mess, the United Nations, would set up shop here and only here, at the east end of Forty-Second Street in Manhattan, as New York was then and still is the most important city on Earth, or the only important city on Earth. Good luck to them – that was an interesting enough organization, even if we’d always be the big dog, not them. Let them play at whatever they were playing at – some good might come of it, as if that mattered. Life went on. We were the ones that defeated communism, or Ronald Reagan defeated communism singlehandedly, or it collapsed of its own weight. It didn’t matter which it was. The Soviet Union collapsed, and we were the only one left standing, the only remaining superpower. The neoconservatives, Bill Kristol and Dick Cheney and that crowd, imagined a New American Century of our firm but fair dominance over the whole world, everywhere, through either intimidation or the actual use of massive force – their concept of leadership, one that has us still hoping for the best in the Middle East. That didn’t work out well, but who else could possibly lead the world? We were it. The matter had been settled long ago.

That’s what bothers many about Obama. He doesn’t watch the right shows on basic cable, or he remembers the wrong wars, the one’s we didn’t win and where we proved nothing about our world leadership. The Korean War never ended – hostilities ceased in 1953 by mutual agreement, with a demilitarized zone separating both sides, followed by sixty or more years of stare-downs. We lost Vietnam to the communists, and nothing much came of it – they’re our trading partner now and helping us contain China. All that talk about dominoes falling, one country after another falling to communism after another, if Vietnam fell, turned out to be nonsense. No other dominoes fell, and we found we could work with the new Vietnamese government.

We didn’t transform the Middle East either. We also lost a decade doing useless crap that fixed nothing. Think about it. In response to those September 11 attacks more than a decade ago, we invaded and pretty much took over Afghanistan, to rid that place of the Taliban and that guy they’d hosted, Osama bin Laden, who had said he had been the one behind what happened. We took care of the Taliban, more or less, and nurtured a new if somewhat flaky government that would not let the Taliban run things again, hosting al-Qaeda again, but we didn’t get Osama bin Laden. He’d slipped away, but by then we were off to Iraq anyway, because of those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had – which he didn’t have – and because Iraq was a state sponsor of terrorism – even if that was a matter of their support for the PLO and other enemies of Israel and al-Qaeda had long despised Saddam Hussein for being too damned secular. George Bush was finally forced to admit that Saddam Hussein didn’t have anything at all to do with the September 11 attacks, and after eight years we left. And now we’re leaving Afghanistan. Karzai isn’t going to sign any agreement to let a few American troops stay, to keep the Taliban from coming back. The local politics won’t allow it. He’d be a dead man. Those folks never wanted us there in the first place. Karzai will let his successors worry about such things, but that leaves us in an untenable position. Obama rang up the Pentagon. Dust off those total-withdrawal plans, guys, and let’s not talk about America leading the world right now, okay? Now Iraq is a sovereign nation run by a Shiite strongman, Malaki, as opposed to a Sunni strongman, Saddam Hussein, and closely aligned with their two Shiite neighbors, Iran and Syria, our current nemesis-twins in the region. The major Sunni power in the region, Saudi Arabia, is infuriated, and the internal Sunni-Shiite civil war still rages on in Iraq too – and the Taliban will soon return to Afghanistan. Our leadership, making the world better for everyone all by ourselves, because only we could do that, turned out to be all talk. The world has no one leader now.

That doesn’t sit well with some, and the New York Times’ David Brooks is one of those worried that this dangerous notion is spreading:

We’re in the middle of a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world. For the first time in half a century, a majority of Americans say that the U.S. should be less engaged in world affairs, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey. For the first time in recorded history, a majority of Americans believe that their country has a declining influence on what’s happening around the globe. A slight majority of Americans now say that their country is doing too much to help solve the world’s problems.

At first blush, this looks like isolationism. After the exhaustion from Iraq and Afghanistan, and amid the lingering economic stagnation, Americans are turning inward.

But if you actually look at the data, you see that this is not the case. America is not turning inward economically. More than three-quarters of Americans believe the U.S. should get more economically integrated with the world, according to Pew.

He’s arguing that we’re still the top dog in everything, but people have come to realize we can best assert our natural and inevitable unquestioned world leadership with Starbucks and McDonalds, not drones and Abrams tanks, even if he’s a tad uneasy with that:

Political leaders are not at the forefront of history; real power is in the swarm. The ensuing doctrine is certainly not Reaganism – the belief that America should use its power to defeat tyranny and promote democracy. It’s not Kantian, or a belief that the world should be governed by international law. It’s not even realism – the belief that diplomats should play elaborate chess games to balance power and advance national interest. It’s a radical belief that the nature of power – where it comes from and how it can be used – has fundamentally shifted, and the people in the big offices just don’t get it.

What they don’t get is that in the wake of World War II, the country had “a basic faith in big units – big armies, corporations and unions” and it “tended to embrace a hierarchical leadership style.” That’s gone. Now “faith in big units has eroded – in all spheres of life. Management hierarchies have been flattened. Today people are more likely to believe that history is driven by people gathering in the squares and not from the top down. The liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet.” In the popular view, as shown in the polling, “The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent.”

Yep, things changed, and if the polls are right, large majorities now favor economic and cultural “engagement” with other nations, as most of us “have enormous confidence in personalized peer-to-peer efforts to promote democracy, human rights and development” – but he also thinks this is nonsense:

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Watch those Hitler-Loses-Again shows on basic cable and you’ll know that’s true, but at Reason, Jesse Walker fires back:

Now, there are several strong arguments to be made against those of us who’d rather see Putin and the mullahs brought down by mass movements of Russians and Iranians rather than by sword-rattling Americans, but “You guys think this can be done without conflict” is not one of them. The last big wave of these movements was the Arab Spring, and while people have plenty of complaints about how that went down, I don’t think anyone believes it was conflict-free – except apparently Brooks, who writes as though conflicts are only conflicts if one side is being directed from the Oval Office.

Walker is a bit fed up:

Is Brooks in thrall to some ridiculous 19th-century Great Man theory of history? Of course history is leaderless. You can’t centrally plan history, and if Americans are losing the illusion that you can then that may be the best news Brooks has told us yet. Let him sit there longing for a leader “who arouses intense moral loyalty” – the rest of us can raise our glasses in a toast to un-governability.

Isaac Chotiner adds this:

Essentially, people today have discarded previous doctrines and theories of global affairs and now believe in what Brooks calls “naïve” and “conflict free” resolution. You might expect, given the picture Brooks has drawn of foolish utopians running wild that such lunacy and immaturity would have led to a much more dangerous world. Yet surely Brooks knows that by almost any calculation the world is much, much more peaceful than it was during the 20th century, and certainly during his beloved Cold War.

Similarly, for Brooks to write that “Reaganism” was about fighting tyranny and promoting democracy makes him sound like the naïve one. When Ronald Reagan hailed Nicaragua’s contras as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” supported dictatorships throughout Africa and Latin America, and even found kind words for the people presiding over apartheid, was he standing up for democracy?

Yeah, but heroes face the bad guys, don’t they? Why do the facts keep getting in the way? Why wasn’t that covered on those two cable channels? Chotiner wonders what Brooks really misses:

Perhaps we should “face” this vile Iranian regime like Reagan did – which would include making arms deals with it and even sending the current Ayatollah a birthday cake. Then, if we are feeling extra generous about democracy promotion, we could use the proceeds of those arms deals to fund thugs on another continent. No doubt the internet-obsessed youth of today don’t have the stomach for such tough policies.

It seems the internet-obsessed youth of today just doesn’t watch enough television, like the American Heroes Channel and History, with all those overlapping shows on how we won the war and everyone on Earth agreed we should lead the world, because no one else could, and that’s how it is and how it should be, and how it always will be. Obama missed those shows too.

At the American Conservative, Daniel Larison questions the whole premise here:

Brooks is making such sweeping, general statements that it’s impossible to tell who is supposed to be adhering to this “radical belief.” There are not many people that think that “politics and conflict are optional” or that it is desirable simply to ignore threats. Divergent interests and some degree of conflict are unavoidable in international affairs, and those aren’t ever going to be eliminated from the world. In order to have successful cooperation in anything, it is necessary to manage and contain the conflicts that inevitably crop up between different states or different interest groups. “Conflict-free cooperation” has never existed, and no one is more aware of that than the people that are trying to negotiate the compromises and agreements needed to make cooperation possible.

Ah, that would be Obama, and Larison suggests Obama is not alone:

If most Americans are more aware of the limits of power generally and U.S. power in particular, I’d say that is a very sensible reaction to more than a decade of overreach and absurd ideological projects, and a very healthy backlash to the delusions of Bush’s Second Inaugural. The U.S. has suffered from an absurd overconfidence in the efficacy of hard power for more than a decade (and really ever since the Gulf War), and Americans have been recoiling from the costs and failures associated with that. I imagine that many Americans are fatigued by being told constantly how vitally important U.S. “leadership” in the world is, and how imperative it is that the U.S. “act” in response to this or that crisis.

That fatigue is bound to be encouraged when Americans justifiably have little confidence in political and media classes that have presided over a series of major debacles since the start of the century. That makes it much easier to dismiss alarmism from politicians and pundits – including overblown claims about “menaces to civilization” – but that is not the same as ignoring real threats.

Maybe so, but the critics of Obama’s embrace of the idea of some sort of leaderless world, where we do what we can and try to avoid doing anything too stupid, are arguing little more than that the appearance of weakness is weakness. America should appear strong, even if we have, say, few options in the current Crimean crisis, and even if we did invade and occupy Iraq ourselves. Appear strong and others respect you, or if they can’t manage to respect you – because they hate your guts for what you’ve done in the past and are doing now, or just hate you for who you are – at least they will fear you. Either way they won’t mess with you, and you’ll be a leader – THE leader.

That was always the argument, as everyone knows that Bill Clinton caused the attacks of September 11, 2001 – Clinton didn’t respond appropriately to the Cole bombing and the embassy bombings in Africa. If he had only opened a can of whoop-ass on anyone in the Middle East who even looked at us funny, no one would have dared even think about doing what was done to us in 2001. There was the ABC docudrama on that back in 2006 – Bill Clinton caused 9/11 and George Bush had to clean up after him, so Bush was the real hero.

Yeah, they got most of their facts wrong, but that all blew over. It did, however, fit the whole narrative, that the appearance of weakness is weakness. And after all the reasons we just had to go to war in Iraq turned to dust, there was always that – so you got the New York Times’ Tom Freidman maintaining his “suck on this” argument, that the war was the right thing to do. Freidman explained it all to Charlie Rose – sure, there were no WMD and in the end Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11, and we botched the occupation and it cost a thousand times more than we thought, and the world reviles us for the whole thing. But we had to do it – we had to go into the Arab world and push someone around, to show that no one could push us around, and any nation in the region would do. We didn’t invade the wrong country, because there was no wrong country. The idea was that the bombing of the Cole, and all the other bombings, then the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, were the result of appearing weak, and those guys needed to be taught a lesson, that we weren’t weak, and if they didn’t like us dismantling and terrorizing a somewhat randomly chosen country in their neighborhood, Freidman had a message for them – “Suck on this!” And he stands by that to this day.

That’s the most distilled form of the argument, but it always crops up. Brooks just put a pretty spin on it. Sure, it’s cool that “a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet” can make such such conflicts obsolete, in theory – but then Brooks says that’s naïve bullshit. We will always need that one American Hero to face the Evil Guy and defeat him, a leader “who arouses intense moral loyalty” – just like you see on the American Heroes Channel and that other one. And Obama isn’t that guy. But who is? Bush tried it, and now no one in the world will ever look to America for leadership again. It’s no wonder the Bush crowd kept referring to Saddam Hussein as Hitler. They missed him, because he was the Evil Guy who lost every day, every hour, on television. But that was a long time ago. Someone tell David Brooks.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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