On the Mend?
America Comes to Its Senses
At periodic intervals, the American body politic has shown a marked susceptibility to messianic fevers. Whenever an especially acute attack occurs, a sort of delirium ensues, manifesting itself in delusions of grandeur and demented behavior.
By the time the condition passes and a semblance of health is restored, recollection of what occurred during the illness tends to be hazy. What happened? How'd we get here? Most Americans prefer not to know. No sense dwelling on what's behind us. Feeling much better now! Thanks!
Gripped by such a fever in 1898, Americans evinced an irrepressible impulse to liberate oppressed Cubans. By the time they'd returned to their senses, having acquired various parcels of real estate between Puerto Rico and the Philippines, no one could quite explain what had happened or why. (The Cubans meanwhile had merely exchanged one set of overseers for another.)
In 1917, the fever suddenly returned. Amid wild ravings about waging a war to end war, Americans lurched off to France. This time the affliction passed quickly, although the course of treatment proved painful: confinement to the charnel house of the Western Front, followed by bitter medicine administered at Versailles.
The 1960s brought another bout (and so yet more disappointment). An overwhelming urge to pay any price, bear any burden landed Americans in Vietnam. The fall of Saigon in 1975 seemed, for a brief interval, to inoculate the body politic against any further recurrence. Yet the salutary effects of this "Vietnam syndrome" proved fleeting. By the time the Cold War ended, Americans were running another temperature, their self-regard reaching impressive new heights. Out of Washington came all sorts of embarrassing gibberish about permanent global supremacy and history's purpose finding fulfillment in the American way of life.
Give Me Fever
Then came 9/11 and the fever simply soared off the charts. The messiah-nation was really pissed and was going to fix things once and for all.
Nearly 10 years have passed since Washington set out to redeem the Greater Middle East. The crusades have not gone especially well. In fact, in the pursuit of its saving mission, the American messiah has pretty much worn itself out.
Today, the post-9/11 fever finally shows signs of abating. The evidence is partial and preliminary. The sickness has by no means passed. Oddly, it lingers most strongly in the Obama White House, of all places, where a keenness to express American ideals by dropping bombs seems strangely undiminished.
Yet despite the urges of some in the Obama administration, after nearly a decade of self-destructive flailing about, American recovery has become a distinct possibility. Here's some of the evidence:
In Washington, it's no longer considered a sin to question American omnipotence. Take the case of Robert Gates. The outgoing secretary of defense may well be the one senior U.S. official of the past decade to leave office with his reputation not only intact, but actually enhanced. (Note to President Obama: think about naming an aircraft carrier after the guy). Yet along with restoring a modicum of competence and accountability to the Pentagon, the Gates legacy is likely to be found in his willingness -- however belated -- to acknowledge the limits of American power.
That the United States should avoid wars except when absolutely necessary no longer connotes incipient isolationism. It is once again a sign of common sense, with Gates a leading promoter. Modesty is becoming respectable.
The Gates Doctrine
No one can charge Gates with being an isolationist or a national security wimp. Neither is he a "declinist." So when he says anyone proposing another major land war in the Greater Middle East should "have his head examined" -- citing the authority of Douglas MacArthur, no less -- people take notice. Or more recently there was this: "I've got a military that's exhausted," Gates remarked, in one of those statements of the obvious too seldom heard from on high. "Let's just finish the wars we're in and keep focused on that instead of signing up for other wars of choice." Someone should etch that into the outer walls of the Pentagon's E-ring.