America has often been at its most dangerous and destructive when it has had supreme confidence in itself and its role in the world.
For most of the past century, human dignity had a friend — the United States of America. We are a deeply flawed and error-prone nation, like any other, but America helped defeat fascism and communism and helped set the context for European peace, Asian prosperity and the spread of democracy.
Then came Iraq and Afghanistan, and America lost faith in itself and its global role — like a pitcher who has been shelled and no longer has confidence in his own stuff. On the left, many now reject the idea that America can be or is a global champion of democracy, and they find phrases like “the indispensable nation” or the “last best hope of the earth” ridiculous. On the right the wall-building caucus has given up on the idea that the rest of the world is even worth engaging.
It is very American to look at failed wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions, and destabilized entire regions and conclude that the real victim is America’s confidence in itself. If we have “lost faith” in our “global role,” it is because we have come to realize that many of the myths we have woven about ourselves are false and we are not the benevolent hegemon or indispensable nation that interventionists said we were. Believing in these myths led the U.S. to commit not only major blunders, but serious and terrible crimes against whole nations. The phrases themselves are clichés, but it is the people that cling to them as guides to policymaking that deserve the ridicule.
The baseball metaphor trivializes decades of disaster, and it makes it seem as if wars that last a generation are no more than having an off night playing a game. Foreign policy isn’t a game. The “pitcher” flung countless bombs and missiles at these two countries, committed war crimes against the civilian population, and waged a damaging “war on terror” in many other parts of the world. The “field” where Brooks urges the U.S. to remain is soaked in the blood of countless innocents, and pretty much everywhere that the U.S. has forcibly intervened is demonstrably worse off than it was before our forces arrived.
Brooks asserts that this has “meant that global terrorism is no longer seen as a major concern in daily American life,” but that’s not true. Large majorities of American remain preoccupied with the exaggerated threat from terrorism because our leaders keep telling them almost twenty years after 9/11 that they should still be afraid. The U.S. has “taken the fight” to lots of groups in at least half a dozen countries, and the result has been to make life for ordinary people in those countries much worse. The actual threat to the U.S. from international terrorism is small, but our “war on terror” has been nothing but a boon to terrorist organizations, which have proliferated and carried out far more attacks than they had before the war began.
According to Brooks’ capsule history, America went from victory to victory and it was only with our post-9/11 debacles that things went awry, but this ignores most of the sordid history of the Cold War and completely erases any memory of our colonial occupations before WWII. Ask the survivors of the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia if America is a friend of human dignity. Ask the Haitians that remember the history of our brutal 19-year occupation of their country what they think of that claim. America has often been at its most dangerous and destructive when it has had supreme confidence in itself and its role in the world. The U.S. ought to be chastened by decades of staggering, costly failure. The fact that it has taken so long for the U.S. to acknowledge failure is proof that we should have less confidence in our role in the world.
Grand ideological struggles are the ones that are most often accompanied by terrible atrocities, because people convince themselves that the ends of prevailing in the struggle justify the appalling means. It is almost never the case that the world has been worse off because America learned a sense of humility and limits. The trouble is that those lessons never seem to stick, and before long we are making all the same errors we made a generation before.
Brooks clearly disapproves of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but he casts this almost entirely in terms of failing to uphold values. There is no serious attempt to argue that keeping troops in Afghanistan has anything to do with U.S. or allied security. Afghanistan was a peripheral and unwinnable war, so the burden of proof is on those that would have the U.S. remain involved. Opponents of withdrawal cannot even begin to meet that burden.
He says, “We’re never going back to the Bush doctrine,” but I’m not sure why he is so sure of that. One might have thought in the late 1970s that the U.S. would never be so stupid as to fight open-ended land wars in Asia again in the wake of Vietnam, but we were. Within thirty years of the departure of U.S. forces from South Vietnam, our government was embarking on new reckless wars fueled by ideological certainty and zeal.
I believe that the U.S. might be capable of being a friend to human dignity, but to do that it would have to stop being the militaristic and aggressive power that it is. It would have to stop enabling the bombing and starvation of Yemen, and it would need to stop arming war criminals and human rights abusers. To be a friend to human dignity would mean ending support for the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, and it would mean reversing recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Instead of providing training to the world’s hit squads and flooding the world with weapons, the U.S. could engage with the world in a constructive and peaceful manner. Instead of dictating terms to other states and waging economic war to inflict collective punishment on tens of millions of innocent people, it could choose to treat other nations with respect and dignity.
By Daniel Larison