I greatly enjoy the new Hollywood genre in which dysfunctional American families fly to a foreign city and slaughter large numbers of the inhabitants as a kind of bonding experience. Liam Neeson takes his estranged wife and their teenage daughter for just such a vacation in Taken 2, in which the spectacular mountain of corpses in Istanbul brings the family back together again and ends with them (spoiler alert) enjoying a chocolate malt back at the soda fountain in California and getting to know the daughter’s new boyfriend. “Don’t shoot this one, Dad,” she cautions. “I really like him.” And they all have a good chuckle over it. In Die Hard 5 or whatever we’re up to, Bruce Willis and his estranged son fly to Moscow and do to the Russians what Neeson does to the Turks and Albanians. I gather that in the forthcoming Finding Nemo 2 Marlin and Dory’s marriage is going through a rocky patch until Nemo is kidnapped by a Ukrainian sex cartel and Marlin and Dory swim up the Dnieper River and gun down every pimp in Kiev.
Alas, outside Hollywood, foreigners are somewhat less pliable than the body count of Liam Neeson’s and Bruce Willis’s obliging extras would suggest. The funniest line in Taken 2 was Neeson’s advice to his daughter in an emergency: “Go to the U.S. embassy. You’ll be safe there.” It opened a couple of weeks after Benghazi.
There are drones, of course, which offer the consolations of technological badassery, as if Liam Neeson could take out all the Albanians from the X-Box in his basement. But don’t worry. According to Politico, at a recent meeting with Senate Democrats, President Obama assured them that they had no need to worry about his awesome power to rain down death from the skies because, as he put it, he’s not Dick Cheney.
Meanwhile, back at the GOP, Senator Rand Paul is no Dick Cheney either: At CPAC this week, the narrow bounds of his smash-hit filibuster — questioning drone assassinations on Americans in America — broadened somewhat, not just to questioning drone assassinations on Americans anywhere, nor to questioning drone assassinations on anyone, nor even to questioning the “war on terror” or war in general, but to questioning the very assumptions of American global order, starting with our bankrolling of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo. The Egyptians send mobs to torch the U.S. embassy, the Saudis wage ideological warfare against Western civilization, the Turks call Israel a “crime against humanity” and threaten a cultural and demographic takeover of Europe, the Pakistanis are ramping up nuke production to sell to any loon in town — and those are just our “allies.” With friends like these, who needs foreign policy? There are fewer and fewer takers for the burdens of global superpower, and whoever wins the nomination in 2016 will be considerably less Cheney and more Randy.
And, to be fair, even Dick Cheney isn’t Dick Cheney, at least in the sense that Dick Cheney isn’t Darth Vader. After a decade of inconclusive war, Americans are understandably receptive to the notion that it’s time to “come home.” Thus, newly appointed defense secretary Chuck Hagel faces, in the words of the Associated Press, “the jarring difficulties of shutting down a war in a country still racked by violence.” “Shutting down”? Yes, the defense secretary is now doing to the Afghan War what Romney’s Bain Capital did to midwestern factories. Its business model no longer makes sense. Some personnel can be reassigned, but thousands of EU nation-building consultants, cousins of Hamid Karzai, and tribal pederasts enjoying free Viagra from Washington (seriously) may have to be laid off.
“Shutting down” Afghan wars can be a tricky business, as the British discovered during their 1842 retreat from Kabul, when the locals offered them “safe passage” and then proceeded to massacre all 4,500 troops plus 12,000 wives, children, and attendant locals, leaving only Dr. William Brydon and his horse to make it through to Jalalabad. His mount died upon arrival; Dr. Brydon lived to tell the tale, albeit missing part of his skull, sheared off by a Pashtun tribesman.
No doubt things will go better this time. Two more Americans died this week at the hands of one of their Afghan “allies,” a man trained, paid, and armed by the United States. If you slaughter thousands, you can still just about get our attention, as Mullah Omar discovered after 9/11. But the slow bleeding of two deaths here, three deaths there, week after week after week takes a psychological toll, rotting out purpose and strategy. So in Washington this will be a war we “shut down”; in Kandahar and beyond, it will be a war we lost.
As one war “shuts down,” are any others likely to open up? This week Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 TV that “we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” So Tehran, fresh from playing the bad guys in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning blockbuster, is going nuclear? Hey, relax, says the president: “I continue to keep all options on the table.” And, every time he says that, you get the vague feeling he continues to keep the table somewhere in the basement. The best option would be if the Israelis just got on with it, absolving everyone else from a tough decision and simultaneously affording them the deliciously irresistible frisson of denouncing the Zionists for their grossly disproportionate response.
More likely, Iran will be permitted to go nuclear — followed shortly thereafter by Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and anyone else who dislikes being conscripted under the Shia Persian nuclear umbrella. North Korea and Pakistan both anticipate a lively export market.
Pakistan has a nominal per capita GDP of about $1,200, with North Korea’s barely detectable. By comparison Sweden’s is about $58,000 and the Netherlands’ about $50,000. But North Korea is a nuclear power and the Netherlands isn’t, and has no plans to become one, and any party so minded to propose otherwise would soon find itself out of power. The assumption that developed nations will get richer under Washington’s defense welfare has been the central tenet of the American era. So now the wealthiest countries in history cannot defend their own borders, while economic basket cases of one degree of derangement or another are nuclear powers.
Perhaps this improbable division will hold. Perhaps the Axis of Crazy will be content just to jostle among itself leaving the Axis of Torpor to fret about lowering the retirement age to 48 and mandatory transgendered bathrooms and other pressing public-policy priorities. But, even under such an inherently unstable truce, the American position and the wider global economy would deteriorate.
As the CPAC crowd suggested, there are takers on the right for the Rand Paul position. There are many on the left for Obama’s drone-alone definition of great power. But there are ever fewer takers for a money-no-object global hegemon that spends 46 percent of the world’s military budget and can’t impress its will on a bunch of inbred goatherds. A broker America needs to learn to do more with less, and to rediscover the cold calculation of national interest rather than waging war as the world’s largest NGO. In dismissing Paul as a “wacko bird,” John McCain and Lindsey Graham assume that the too-big-to-fail status quo is forever. It’s not; it’s already over.