Politics & Policy

The Disenchanted American

Are we growing world-weary?

There is a new strange mood of acceptance among Americans about the world beyond our shores. Of course, we are not becoming naïve isolationists of 1930s vintage, who believe that we are safe by ourselves inside fortress America–not after September 11. Nor do citizens deny that America has military and moral obligations to stay engaged abroad–at least for a while yet. Certainly the United States is not mired in a Vietnam-era depression and stagflation and thus ready to wallow in Carteresque malaise. Indeed, if anything Americans remain muscular and are more defiant than ever.

Instead, there is a new sort of resignation rising in the country, as the United States sheds its naiveté that grew up in the aftermath of the Cold War. Clintonism may have assumed that terrorism was but a police matter, that the military could be slashed and used for domestic social reform by fiat, that our de facto neutrals were truly our friends, and that the end of the old smash-mouth history was at hand. The chaotic events following the demise of the Soviet Union, the mass murder on September 11, and the new strain of deductive anti-Americanism abroad cured most of all that.

Imagine a world in which there was no United States during the last 15 years. Iraq, Iran, and Libya would now have nukes. Afghanistan would remain a seventh-century Islamic terrorist haven sending out the minions of Zarqawi and Bin Laden worldwide. The lieutenants of Noriega, Milosevic, Mullah Omar, Saddam, and Moammar Khaddafi would no doubt be adjudicating human rights at the United Nations. The Ortega Brothers and Fidel Castro, not democracy, would be the exemplars of Latin America. Bosnia and Kosovo would be national graveyards like Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Add in Kurdistan as well–the periodic laboratory for Saddam’s latest varieties of gas. Saddam himself, of course, would have statues throughout the Gulf attesting to his control of half the world’s oil reservoirs. Europeans would be in two-day mourning that their arms sales to Arab monstrocracies ensured a second holocaust. North Korea would be shooting missiles over Tokyo from its new bases around Seoul and Pusan. For their own survival, Germany, Taiwan, and Japan would all now be nuclear. Americans know all that–and yet they grasp that their own vigilance and military sacrifices have earned them spite rather than gratitude. And they are ever so slowly learning not much to care anymore.

In fact, an American consensus is growing that envy and hatred of the United States, coupled with utopian and pacifistic rhetoric, disguise an even more depressing fact: Outside our shores there is a growing barbarism with no other sheriff in sight. Any cinema student of the American Western can fathom why the frightened townspeople–huddled in their churches and shuttered schools–almost hated the lone marshal as much as they did the six-shooting outlaw gang rampaging in their streets. After all, the holed-up ‘good’ citizens were always angry that the lawman had shamed them, worried that he might make dangerous demands on their insular lives, confused about whether they would have to accommodate themselves either to savagery or civilization in their town’s future, and, above all, assured that they could libel and slur the tin star in a way that would earn a bullet from the lawbreaker. It was precisely that paradox between impotent high-sounding rhetoric and blunt-speaking, roughshod courage that lay at the heart of the classic Western from Shane and High Noon to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Magnificent Seven.

The U.N., NATO, or the EU: These are now the town criers of the civilized world who preach about “the law” and then seek asylum in their closed shops and barred stores when the nuclear Daltons or terrorist Clantons run roughshod over the town. In our own contemporary ongoing drama, China, Russia, and India watch bemused as the United States tries to hunt down the psychopathic killers while Western elites ankle-bite and hector its efforts. I suppose the Russians, Chinese, and Indians know that Islamists understand all too well that blowing up two skyscrapers in Moscow, Shanghai, or Delhi would guarantee that their Middle Eastern patrons might end up in cinders.

So an entire mythology has grown up to accommodate this false world of ours–sadly never more evident than during the recent tsunami disaster, a tragedy that has juxtaposed rhetoric with reality in a way that becomes each day more surreal. The wealthy Gulf States pledge very little of their vast petrol-dollar reserves–swollen from last year’s jacked-up gasoline prices–to aid the ravaged homelands of their Islamic nannies, drivers, and janitors. Indeed, Muslim charities advertise to their donors that their aid goes to fellow Muslims–as if a dying Buddhist or Christian is less deserving of the Muslim Street’s aid. In defense, officials argue that the ostracism of “charities” that funded suicide killers to the tune of $150 million has hampered their humanitarian efforts at scraping up a fifth of that sum. But then blowing apart Americans or Jews is always a higher priority than saving innocent Muslim children.

So even in death and misery, the world’s pathologies remain–as Israel is disinvited to help the dying as the most benevolent United States, which freed Afghanistan and toppled Saddam, is supposedly under scrutiny to “regain” its stature for its “crimes” of jailing a mass murderer and sponsoring elections in his place. Last year alone the United States gave more direct money to Egypt and Jordan than what the entire billion-person Muslim world has given for the dead in Indonesia.

China, flush with billions in trade surplus, first offers a few million to its immediate Asian neighbors before increasing its contributions in the wake of massive gifts from Japan and the United States. Peking’s gesture was what the usually harsh New York Times magnanimously called “slightly belated.” In this weird sort of global high-stakes charity poker, no one asks why tiny Taiwan out-gives one billion mainlanders or why Japan proves about the most generous of all–worried the answer might suggest that postwar democratic republics, resurrected and nourished by the United States and now deeply entrenched in the Western liberal tradition of democracy, capitalism, and humanitarianism, are more civil societies than the Islamic theocracies, socialist republics, and authoritarian autocracies of the once-romanticized third world.

In the first days of the disaster, a Norwegian U.N. bureaucrat snidely implied that the United States was “stingy” even though private companies in the United States, well apart from American individuals, foundations, and the government, each year alone give more aggregate foreign aid than does his entire tiny country. Apparently the crime against America is not that it gives too little to those who need it, but that it gives too little to those who wish to administer it all. When the terrible wave hit, Kofi Annan was escaping the conundrum of the Oil-for-Food scandal by skiing at Jackson Hole, so naturally George Bush down in ‘ole Crawford Texas was the global media’s obvious insensitive leader–”on vacation” as it were, while millions perished.

The U.S. military is habitually slurred even though it possesses the world’s only lift and sea assets that could substantially aid in the ongoing disasters in Indonesia and Thailand. Blamed for having too high a profile in removing the Taliban and Saddam, it is now abused for having too meek a presence in Southeast Asia. No doubt America should have “preempted” the wave and acted in a more “unilateral” fashion. Meanwhile we await the arrival of the Charles De Gaulle and its massive fleet of life-saving choppers that can ferry ample amounts of Saudi, Chinese, and Cuban materiel to the dying–emissaries all of U.N. and EU multilateralism.

All this hypocrisy has desensitized Americans, left and right, liberal and conservative. We will finish the job in Iraq, nursemaid democratic Afghanistan through its birthpangs, and continue to ensure that bandits and criminal states stay off the world’s streets. But what is new is that the disenchanted American is becoming savvy and developing a long memory–and so we all fear the day is coming when he casts aside the badge, rides the buckboard out of town, and leaves such sanctimonious folk to themselves.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.

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