Foolish Commitments Drive Out Wise Ones

Royalty-Free Stock Photography by Rubberball.comVladimir Putin announced his Anschluss of the Crimea— a textbook act of imperial conquest—as a rebuke to American imperialism. This mockery is a measure of our present predicament among nations, and of the prospect that it will only get worse. What reality elicits such contempt? What would it take to remedy it?

Just after the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1992, the first Bush administration had prevailed on Ukraine to deliver to Russia all of the Soviet nuclear weapons and missiles on its soil in exchange for a solemn U.S. guarantee of its independence and territorial integrity (delivered by the Clinton administration in 1994). This, far from being an anti-Russian act of American imperialism, was bipartisan ruling-class naiveté combined with insouciance about ends and means. The U.S. government had no way of enforcing that guarantee then.

It has less now. Why? Because Gresham’s law— bad currency drives out good—applies to international affairs as it does to the rest of human experience.

Having wasted some 10,000 American lives, multiple trillions of dollars, and the American people’s trust over the course of a decade-plus by foolishly trying to answer Islamic terrorism with whack-a-mole tactics, nation-building strategy, and Homeland Security, the U.S. government now finds itself militarily, morally, and politically disabled in the face of geopolitical challenges in Europe and the Pacific Rim.

We are just beginning to understand the consequences of our bipartisan ruling class’s misunderstanding of terrorism as the work of rogues rather than as the bigger, deeper problem it is: Islamism in reaction to the dysfunction of the Muslim world’s regimes and our own civilization’s self-abasement. The attempt to eliminate the rogues by sorting them out of Iraqi, Afghani, Yemeni, societies while also reforming these societies only spread hate for America. Our failure spread contempt. Continued American solicitude toward many of these regimes and groups as anti-American incitement and violence persisted only increased the Muslim world’s contempt for Americans.

The result has been to multiply the number of Muslims who think it good, even obligatory, to hurt us. The rest of mankind passed on us the judgment reserved for the mighty who make a mess of themselves.

Consider that the National Security Agency is recording ordinary persons’ communications even though the U.S. government was unable to identify and prevent those who carried out our age’s major outrages. The U.S. government did not identify the 9/11 crew despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it operated under its very nose. Nor the Boston Marathon bombers. The shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Times Square bomber, simply miscarried from incompetence. If an outrage occurred tomorrow, few would be surprised that the U.S. government had failed to warn of it, much less prevent it. Indeed, there is a unbroken correlation between U.S. warnings and non-occurrence. Knowing all of this, we can infer that Homeland Security’s vast powers are just as likely to be used for domestic partisan purposes as are any of the government’s other powers. Americans have rightly lost trust in their government.

The Obama administration’s announcement that the U.S. Army is to be shrunk to 1940 size, that the number of Navy ships and of Air Force planes will continue to shrink as existing equipment ages and is not replaced, rounds out the picture: The United States of America has used up men; materiel; money; credit, of the moral even more than of the financial kind; and spirit above all.

Too obviously—in Putin’s eyes, and everyone else’s—such a country has neither the means, the political capacity, nor the strategic sense to confront major challenges to its interests. China’s multi-dimensional push for hegemony in the Pacific Rim, the beginning of Japan’s reaction thereto which may include nuclear weapons, as well as South Korea’s interest in acquiring such weapons, are logical consequences of the region’s realization that the Pacific’s Pax Americana is a thing of the past. Similarly, the war between Sunni and Shia Muslims—today’s prime mover of events from North Africa to Pakistan—has pushed aside America’s and Europe’s interests in the region quite simply because the U.S. government has run out of will, capacity, and above all ideas about how to assert those interests.

The past generation’s ill-conceived and botched commitments only worsened the disparity between the U.S. government’s ends and means. That deficiency of statesmanship, however, is deep-rooted in a combination of moral hubris and anti-militarism. The Bush I and Clinton officials who took weapons from Ukraine in the 1990s while guaranteeing its integrity are no different from the Harding administration officials who, in 1921, guaranteed the integrity of China while refusing to fortify the U.S. naval bases that would have allowed Washington to fulfill that guarantee, or from the Obama officials today who place sanctions on a dozen Russians and expect Putin not to scoff.

This will continue so long as U.S. officials imagine that the worthiness of their desires elevates them above having to look to America’s vital business, and even absolves them from the need to understand what it takes to move foreign powers. It will continue until they build missile defenses that can protect America and cover our military ventures, as well as a navy potent enough to ensure that no continental powers extend their sway over the major islands of the Atlantic or the Pacific, until the prospect of American displeasure causes fear rather than mirth.

America needs a new generation of statesmen for whom matching ends and means is second nature, who know the difference between their private predilections and America’s vital interests, who regard minding those interests not as a demotion from the rank of steward of the world but rather as a calling that absorbs the highest human talents—statesmen who inspire fear rather than scorn in such as Putin because they guard America’s peace by winning America’s wars.

Angelo M. Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and is a Senior Fellow of The Claremont Institute. He served as a U.S. Senate Staff member dealing with oversight of the intelligence services. His new book Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations was published by Hoover Institution Press.

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  1. gabe says

    “This will continue so long as U.S. officials imagine that the worthiness of their desires elevates them above having to look to America’s vital business”

    “The U.S. government did not identify the 9/11 crew despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it operated under its very nose”

    What is the link between the two statements.

    JAMIE GORELICK and the Clinton Administrations “wall of separation” between intelligence agencies, that’s what!
    And to demonstrate the continued bad faith of our elites, this woman was later given a rather well paying job at Fannie or Freddie MAC – with no discernible outcry from either Party.

    Prof. Codevilla is correct: Our infatuation with the “superiority of our motives / visions will soon be the death of us!

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “America needs a new generation of statesmen . . . who know the difference between their private predilections and America’s vital interests, who regard minding those interests not as a demotion from the rank of steward of the world…”

    Is it not more than that?
    Is there any coherent understanding and expression of what constitutes the “vital interests” of the United States and its people in our foreign relations?

    With some exceptions, those acting as the agents for the people of the United States, both in formulating “foreign policy” and conducting foreign relations are of the American Political Class (which includes the confrères from academia).

    As has been posted elsewhere, for many years the almost exclusive activity of the Political Class has been the creation and maintenance of perceptions. There has been a translation of that activity (or certainly a continuation of those habits) in the conduct of foreign policy by those persons from the Political Class. There has been no demonstrated capacity to form a coherent understanding of America’s vital interests.

    In fact, in view of the schism between the American people and a government cloyed with the Political Class, there will be great difficulty in conveying such an understanding to the American people if it can in fact ultimately be attained by persons worthy of the tasks.

    We are, in fact, beyond “damage control;” the capacity for navigational “command” has been lost. Any capable navigators who remain available are estopped

  3. LesLein says

    This is a good analyis. I have a few questions:

    Given the situation in 2001 and 2002, what should we have done? Al Qaeda was operating out of Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMD stockpiles, but his WMD program was dangerous and the sanctions were breaking down. Al Qaeda proved that they could penetrate our borders. Should we have left Afghanistan and al Qaeda alone?

    Given the current situation, what should we do now?

  4. R Richard Schweitzer says

    What’s done is done.
    Some of what was done (leapfrogging Western civilization further into the heart [Iraq} of the clan and tribal societies of the Muslim world) was casually abandoned years later.

    It was not the initial sweep of the Taliban from Afghanistan that has left us with our present dysfunction. It was the determination to make the “right war” without establishing an objective for those actions; plus the failure to ascertain the assets and will to achieve an objective if one were to be determined.

    For now, we **should** “do” nothing, say nothing, make no commitments, take no positions, but assemble (if they be willing) a cadre of honest and knowledgeable persons to develop a long-range “strategy” for the whole series of relations, beginning with China and the Russian Federation (which is a dying country of diverse peoples) and assemble the resources, prepare the proper methods for informing the electorate in order to implement the determined strategy. However ingratiating the terminology may have been in the case of Europe, we have no allies, only dependents. Those dependents have their own vulnerabilities which we cannot eliminate, but would have to be considered in strategic planning. In the current political structure, those options- the “should ” – are not open to the United States.


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