How did the world’s only superpower wind up in the middle of this war-crazy mess? The United States seems to be dealing with three or four enemies at once. Or switching sides when a renegade militia changes its name and allegiance. Or refighting old wars Americans thought they had already won.
It’s hard to keep track, and lots of citizens have stopped trying. When the Cold War ended a generation ago, the United States took on the singular role of global peacekeeper, protecting or punishing other nations depending on their behavior and values. We spread troops and clandestine warriors in black among scores of nations to keep the peace. It sounded like a noble commitment.
Now our so-called “indispensable nation” finds itself beset with confusion and contradictions, trying to cope with half a dozen or more irregular insurgencies, some hostile, some friendly. Instead of peace and tranquility, the American Goliath seems to attract a swarm of killer bees.
At the moment, the war in Afghanistan is heating up again. The Taliban are recapturing the countryside and slaughtering scores of young Afghan army recruits assembled for weekly prayers, or blowing up Kabul. American hawks are once again calling for more troops, more arms, and more money. President Trump sent National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to survey the troubled scene and propose a new strategy.
This is an old story. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly 16 years. “New” strategies were also proposed by Trump’s predecessors, but none of them succeeded. Washington doesn’t know how to win this war or how to get out of it.
Modern warfare, it seems, does not require victory or defeat, just hanging on. On this perverse battlefield, adversaries fight with different weapons. Our side has the wondrous tools of high-tech weaponry, like precision bombing by pilotless drones or video terrain maps for tank commanders. The other side has, in addition to the usual tactics of guerrilla warfare, terrorism, including the deployment of children wearing suicide bombs as jackets to blow up a crowded marketplace.
Yet, strangely enough, the gravest threat to America is not these foreign terrorists. It is a threat closer to home that political leaders don’t wish to talk about: We endanger ourselves.
What pulls our reluctant citizenry deeper and deeper into chaos and violence is American hubris—the false pride of our triumphalist pretensions. The assumption is that our authority in the world ultimately relies upon our awesome destructive power. The US monopoly on deadly force is supposedly justified by our noble intentions—protecting world peace. During the Cold War rivalry, both sides competed, mainly on matching nuclear arsenals, but they did not make the mistake of launching direct war against each other (prudent strategy for both sides).