Geoffrey Wheatcroft: America sank these pirates, but the Age of Might is over





[Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a British journalist.]

For the family of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, his rescue by special forces was the best possible Easter present. For Americans it was an exhilarating display of American power, and for Barack Obama it was a gratifying demonstration that he isn't the wimpish pacifist the Republicans called him.

But to a detached observer, this gung-ho adventure in the Indian Ocean is the rule-proving exception. What we have recently seen far more often is what a New York Times headline on the piracy story said last Thursday: "US power has limit". We're dealing, that's to say, with one of the most important discoveries of our time: the impotence of great might.

Today there is only one hyperpower. The US is, on the face of it, mightier than any other imperial power in history. And imperial is the word: it's more than 50 years since Reinhold Niebuhr, the great American moral philosopher (and one of Obama's favourite writers), wrote about the new age of American empire, "however frantically we deny it".

By now it's scarcely worth denying, frantically or otherwise. One evening last year I was idly channel-hopping through the sports programmes and lighted on the midsummer All-Star baseball game. There was a patriotic interlude, when the announcer said their thoughts were with the American servicemen and women "in the 153 countries where they are stationed". That's an impressive figure out of 192 member states of the UN.

American military spending is very much greater than the next 10 countries combined, friend or foe. Even now, 20 years after the Soviet Union began to crumble, the US air force and navy hold an immense number of nuclear warheads, weaponised and ready to go - but where? With all that might, the military operations in western Asia have turned out to be far more difficult than Washington originally envisaged. By the autumn it will be eight years since US forces entered Afghanistan, and it's six since the invasion of Iraq. Even six years is longer than the combined length of American participation in the first and second world wars.

Although the Afghan campaign was originally more justifiable than Iraq (which isn't saying much), it now looks less winnable. Even in Iraq, the vaunted success of the "surge" may prove deceptive if it persuades the Americans that they can win a permanent military victory there.

This is not as new as we might think. Go back to the heyday of the cold war. The US and the Soviet Union each held a nuclear arsenal that could annihilate the other, or for that matter the whole world. They seemed mightier by far than any other military and imperial powers in history, surely capable of defeating any enemy. But what happened? The Americans were humiliated in Vietnam by one rag-tag peasant army, and the Russians were humiliated in Afghanistan by another. Two ferocious lions might be ready to fight each other to the death, but couldn't deal with swarms of gnats...


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Patrick Murray - 4/17/2009

Adrian R. Lewis in his The American Culture of War laments the fact that in 2006 the US Navy launched a nuclear attack submarine against no known enemy. Lewis also points out that 0.057 percent of the American population is in America's ground forces. With the Congressional-Pentagon Budget leading to purchasing rather than mission orientation, and the willingness to allow a tiny majority to risk military service it is time to question the great power status of the United States. We lack the will to tax ourselves to pay for it and the upper middle class and upper class won't serve. This is not a recipe for success. Nial Ferguson is right, it is strategic overreach.


Donald Wolberg - 4/17/2009

Mr. Wheatcroft might do better than surfing television events and think a bit more about reality. The fact is that to cover the vast reaches of coastal and near coastal waters requires machines (ships and aircraft, as well as lookdown space machines). The U.S. Navy is short on ships and getting very short on aircraft carriers and short on land based aircraft, and people, beause of policies leading toand lack of funding resulting in cuts in all areas. There is also a lack of will to attack the land bases of these criminals and obliterate them (it might take two days of air strikes). There is nothing like rapid response to "change attitudes" of these folks.
However, such a policy requires will and determination.