When the ordeal of coping with the world's complexities becomes too much for us, we Americans tend to take comfort in the reflection that the United States is, after all, "the world's only superpower." This overlooks the discomfiting fact that the United States is also well on its way to becoming known as the world's most spectacular loser. And not only a loser, but a quitter.
To confirm this, one need only look at the very public strategy of such prominent foes of the United States as Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They make no pretense of being able to overwhelm America militarily. But they argue, contemptuously, that the United States is a paper tiger whose people can't stand the sight of blood. Adopt guerrilla tactics: Contrive to kill a few U.S. soldiers every week, use suicide bombers to massacre a few hundred (or a few thousand) innocent men, women and children every now and then, and take care to provide the world's television networks with a steady diet of televised beheadings.
Then watch the vaunted democratic processes of "the world's only superpower" do their stuff. The incumbent administration's enemies, in the opposing political party and the media, will denounce the country's military effort as unnecessary at best and counterproductive at worst. The inevitable casualties will be highlighted, one by one. Slowly, American public opinion will turn against the war. Ultimately, the United States will cut and run.
This process has been going on since the Vietnam War, more than 40 years ago. When it was over, the North Vietnamese commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, admitted openly that North Vietnam had never possessed the power to defeat the United States militarily. Everything, he explained, depended on hanging on until the American home front turned against the war. In due course, the United States withdrew its troops, and Congress (controlled by the Democrats) voted to cut off all further military aid to the South Vietnamese. Within a matter of months, North Vietnam overran the South. (In that painful spring, I stood in front of the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, bowed low, and said in a loud voice, "On behalf of the people of the United States, I apologize.")
Since then, the United States has pulled out of almost every country in which American lives have been lost, from Lebanon in 1983 (when 241 U.S. servicemen were killed in an Iran-assisted terrorist attack) to Somalia in 1993 (after 18 soldiers died in the failed relief operation chronicled in "Black Hawk Down"). Bin Laden has pointed triumphantly to both of these examples, as well as noting America's total failure to respond to the deadly terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 or the deaths of 17 Americans in the terrorist bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Aden in October 2000.
No wonder he and Zarqawi enjoy distributing morale-boosting videotapes to their admirers, assuring them that an American bug-out in Iraq is simply a matter of time. Who, on the basis of 40 years of history, can say they are wrong?
In a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal on May 2nd, Shelby Steele, a noted African-American research fellow at the Hoover Institution, offers an explanation. He points out that, far from utilizing its full power against its recent enemies, the United States has consistently "practiced a policy of minimalism and restraint in war," carefully making "a little room for an insurgency" -- a sort of "space for the enemy." He argues, "The collapse of white supremacy -- and the resulting white guilt -- introduced a new mechanism of power into the world: stigmatization with the evil of the Western past," which "makes our Third World enemies into colored victims." In the very act of defeating them, we "lose legitimacy."
This mechanism is one of liberalism's deadliest contributions to the weakening of America. Steele suggests that only by shaking off the incubus of "white guilt" can the United States "once again feel the moral authority to seriously tackle its most profound problems."