More than seven years ago – what seems to be an eternity now – Charles Krauthammer spoke to a Hillsdale College gathering which was celebrating the “success” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and was about to celebrate the “success” of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I read the speech after it came out and then had real concerns, but little did I know those concerns would be mild compared to the reality that has become the United States of America today.
Like so many other government programs, wars in which a stronger army invades a weaker country bring the “good effects” first, and only later do we see the “bad effects.” One recalls the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazi express on the Western Front in the spring of 1940, and the early successes of the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. in 1941. One does not have to search far to see what was happening to the Wehrmacht in 1945 to gauge the “success” of the German retreat.
(Not-so-ironically, “Wehrmacht” originally meant “home defense” forces, just as it is ironic that the U.S. Department of War became the U.S. Department of Defense after World War II, and the number of U.S. “defense” excursions overseas, not to mention military bases overseas, has multiplied into something perverse that cannot economically be sustained.)
Thus, it was in that heady, self-congratulatory atmosphere in which the Neoconservatives were claiming “victory,” and they greatly applauded Krauthammer’s speech. Instead of offering critiques, instead I will include portions of that speech and let Krauthammer’s words speech for him:
At the end of the Cold War, the conventional wisdom was that with the demise of the Soviet Empire, the bipolarity of the second half of the 20th century would yield to a multi-polar world. You might recall the school of thought led by historian Paul Kennedy, who said that America was already in decline, suffering from imperial overstretch. There was also the Asian enthusiasm, popularized by James Fallows and others, whose thinking was best captured by the late-1980s witticism: “The United States and Russia decided to hold a Cold War. Who won? Japan.”
Well, they were wrong, and ironically no one has put it better than Paul Kennedy himself, in a classic recantation emphasizing America’s power: “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power, nothing. Charlemagne’s empire was merely Western European in its reach. The Roman Empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia and a larger one in China. There is, therefore, no comparison.”
We tend not to see or understand the historical uniqueness of this situation. Even at its height, Britain could always be seriously challenged by the next greatest powers. It had a smaller army than the land powers of Europe, and its navy was equaled by the next two navies combined.
Today, the American military exceeds in spending the next twenty countries combined. Its Navy, Air Force and space power are unrivaled. Its dominance extends as well to every other aspect of international life—not only military, but economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural, even linguistic, with a myriad of countries trying to fend off the inexorable march of MTV English.
…September 11 demonstrated a new kind of American strength. The center of our economy was struck, aviation was shut down, the government was sent underground and the country was rendered paralyzed and fearful. Yet within days, the markets reopened, the economy began its recovery, the president mobilized the nation and a unified Congress immediately underwrote a huge worldwide war on terror. The Pentagon, with its demolished western facade still smoldering, began planning the war. The illusion of America’s invulnerability was shattered, but with the demonstration of its recuperative powers, that sense of invulnerability assumed a new character. It was transmuted from impermeability to resilience—the product of unrivaled human, technological and political reserves.
But, he saves the best for later: “So we bestride the world like a colossus.”
And so it is that more than seven years later, the U.S. economy is in freefall, and the current government – elected in large part because of the recklessness of the Bush administration that Krauthammer so praises – is placing huge financial burdens that this economy cannot support. The wars continue in Afghanistan and Iraq, except they no longer are wars of invasion but, instead, are wars of occupation, and no matter how ruthless the occupier might be, in the long run a war of occupation cannot be victorious for those people who don’t belong there.
Krauthammer’s praise of U.S. “unilateralism,” which is a nice term for “bullying,” was popular that night with his audience. It was full of people who believed that “American exceptionalism” means the use of military power wherever the government damn well believes it can – and should – be used. It means floating bonds around the world and expecting the rest of the world to pick up our spending tab.
Ultimately, it means bankruptcy and humiliating defeat. True, publications like The Nation can claim that as long as our government printing presses remain operational, the USA never will go bankrupt because it can pay its creditors with paper – if it chooses to pay them at all.
In other words, it no longer is just the Neocons being arrogant and aggressive. The “torch” of political power has passed from the Republicans to the Democrats, but the arrogance and delusion of Washington, D.C., continues. Perhaps it is fitting that Krauthammer gave his speech to a Hillsdale College gathering, but the meeting was held in D.C.
Krauthammer declared that all the USA had to do was to demonstrate its “power” and the rest of the world would quake and humbly follow in obedience. Republicans – and later Democrats – have followed his not-so-sage advice and we see what lies before us: financial ruin and poverty. Just as there really was no “Argentine exceptionalism” of the 20th Century, as that once-great country inflated itself into poverty and ruin, so will be the reality of the Neocons’ “American exceptionalism” unless Americans come to realize that our present path of war abroad and reckless spending at home will destroy all of us.