A Failure of Memory and Nerve

“History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.”

—Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics

I write on the 20th anniversary of the Islamic terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, D.C. No matter where you turn, it seems, the message is the same, a combination of injunction and protestation: “Never forget,” “We remember,” the sentiment invariably bolstered with reminiscences of loss and heroism. 

The loss and the heroism are real, no doubt, but I am afraid that admonitions about remembering seem mostly manufactured. How could they not? Clearly, we have not remembered, and no amount of barking by the president of the United States about what an “extraordinary success” his shameful scuttle out of Afghanistan was can change that. 

If we truly remembered, we would not have allowed four top Taliban terrorists, released by Barack Obama from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for the traitorous Bowe Bergdahl, to assume top positions in the newly formed Taliban government. If we truly remembered, we would not have left hundreds of Americans behind in Afghanistan, ready-made hostages for the new regime.

We spent 20 years and trillions of dollars in Afghanistan—for what? To try to coax it into the 21st century and assume the enlightened, “woke” perspective that has laid waste to the institutions of American culture, from the universities to the military? 

Certain aspects of that folly seem darkly comic now, such as our efforts to raise the consciousness of the locals by introducing them to conceptual art and decadent Western ideas of “gender equity.” Writing in The Spectator, the columnist known as “Cockburn” captures the fatuousness of the program. “Do-gooders,” he notes, “established a ‘National Masculinity Alliance,’ so a few hundred Afghan men could talk about their ‘gender roles’ and ‘examine male attitudes that are harmful to women.’” I wonder if among the “attitudes” discussed were the penchant of certain Afghan men to stone women to death for adultery? “Under the U.S.’s guidance,” Cockburn continues, “Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution set a 27 percent quota for women in the lower house—higher than the actual figure in America!” 

Remarkably, this experiment in ‘democracy’ created a government few were willing to fight for, let alone die for. . . . Police facilities included childcare facilities for working mothers, as though Afghanistan’s medieval culture had the same needs as 1980s Minneapolis. The army set a goal of 10 percent female participation, which might make sense in a Marvel movie, but didn’t to devout Muslims. 

The explicit cost for such gender programs was $787 million; the real cost, as Cockburn notes, was much higher because “gender goals” were folded into almost every initiative we undertook in Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I, like many others, described the attacks as “America’s wake-up call.” I was wrong about that. In retrospect, it seems clear that the alarm came with a snooze button. After shaking our collective head and blinking awake for a few moments, we pressed the button, turned over, and went back to sleep. 

I am not, by the way, suggesting that we ought to have prolonged our stay in Afghanistan, pumping yet more American blood and treasure into the maw of that vast concession for endless wars and imaginary “nation building.” In my view, Donald Trump was right a couple of years ago when he told his generals that he wanted the United States out of Afghanistan. Trump was only president of the United States, though, not a paid-up member of the permanent ruling class, so his orders were quietly countermanded and then ignored. 

Twenty years ago today, the New York Times ran a long and flattering profile of Bill Ayers, who in the 1970s was a member of the Weather Underground, the radical anti-American group that was responsible for many acts of violence. This was a few decades before he emerged as an advisor to (and possibly ghostwriter for) Barack Obama. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” Ayers said in that story’s lead. “I feel we didn’t do enough.” I wonder how many people were reading those lines when two of the hijacked airliners screamed into the Twin Towers. 

Cyril Connolly may have been premature when, in the late 1940s, he wrote that “it is closing time in the gardens of the West.” Indeed, the West, at least as represented by America, was on the threshold of mighty, decades-long rise. Back then, America still displayed some awareness about the responsibility that accrues to those states that wield great power. It is a lesson that liberal regimes are continuously tempted to forget, to their own peril and the peril of the societies they influence. 

The dissolution of the British Empire—one of the most beneficent and enlightened political forces in history—took place for many reasons, including pressure from the United States. But part of the reason for its dissolution was inner uncertainty, weariness, a failure of nerve. By the middle of the last century, Britain no longer wished to rule: it wanted to be liked. 

The promiscuous desire to be liked, for states as much as for individuals, is a profound character flaw. It signals a faltering of courage, what Pericles castigated as μαλακία, “effeminacy,” and a dangerous loss of self-confidence. At the height of the Cold War, the political philosopher James Burnham observed that “Americans have not yet learned the tragic lesson that the most powerful cannot be loved—hated, envied, feared, obeyed, respected, even honored perhaps, but not loved.” You might have thought that the 9/11 terror attacks would have weaned our rulers of that illusion, but such was not the case. 

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, we saw plenty of deplorable outbursts of anti-Americanism: the dancing “Death to America” multitudes in the Middle East as well as the predictable responses of cultural Left. But we also witnessed a vast outpouring of sympathy. Some of the sympathy no doubt was genuine; much of it was oleaginous and depended on the novel spectacle of America appearing as a victim. The trouble was that America was not content to remain a victim. And when a victim fights back, he may earn respect but he forfeits sympathy and kindred sentimentalizing emotions.

When Susan Sontag said that the terrorist assaults on the United States were “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” she offered that observation as a partial justification or extenuation of the attacks, which it most certainly was not. But there is, I believe, another sense in which growing anti-Americanism, together with a growing climate of terrorism, can be seen as a predictable result of American actions or, more to the point, of American inaction. 

I am not offering a candidate for the “cause”—much less the “root cause”—of terrorism. Determining the cause of terrorism is not a difficult hermeneutical problem. Jonathan Rauch had it essentially right when he argued that the cause of terrorism is terrorists. Nevertheless, when we ask what nurtures terrorists, what allows them to flourish and multiply, one important answer concerns the failure of authority, which is the failure to live up to the responsibilities of power.

In the course of some reflections on anti-Americanism, the journalist Henry Fairlie observed,“Anti-Americanism abroad tends to be strongest when America itself seems to have lost confidence in its own idea.” Some such loss of confidence has repeatedly afflicted the American spirit at least since the end of the Vietnam conflict. 

It is by now a familiar litany, but is nonetheless worth reviewing. From the mid-1970s, the United States has vacillated in discharging its responsibilities to power. Whatever the wisdom of our involvement in Vietnam, our way of extricating ourselves was ignominious and an incitement to further violence. The image of that U.S. helicopter evacuating people from our embassy in Saigon is a badge of failure, not so much of military strategy as of nerve. The same can be said of the image of those desperate Afghans clinging to, then falling from, the landing gear of the U.S. transport plane taking off from the airport in Kabul. 

Even worse was our response to the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 and 1980. Our hesitation to act decisively was duly noted and found contemptible by our enemies. And the fiasco of President Carter’s botched rescue attempt, when a transport vehicle and one of our helicopters collided on the sands of the Iranian desert, was a national humiliation. President Reagan did effectively face down the Soviet Union, but his halfhearted response to the terrorist bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 contributed to the tattered reputation of America as (in Mao’s phrase) “a paper tiger.”

The Clinton Administration sharply exacerbated the problem. From 1993 through 2000, the United States again and again demonstrated its lack of resolve even as it let its military infrastructure decay. In Somalia at the end of 1992, two U.S. helicopters were shot down, several Americans were killed, and the body of one was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu. We did nothing—an action, or lack of action, that prompted Osama bin Laden way back then to reflect that his followers were “surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.”

It was the same in 1993, when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, killing six people and wounding scores. It was the same in June 1996, when a truck bomb exploded outside a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. There were some anguished words but we did . . . nothing. It was the same in 1998 when our embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds. The response was to rearrange some rocks in the Afghan desert with a few cruise missiles.

It was the same in October 2000, when suicide terrorists blew a gigantic hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and nearly sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced ships. Like Hamlet, we responded with “words, words, words,” and only token military gestures. The harvest was an increase in contempt and a corresponding increase in terrorist outrage, culminating—last time around—in the terrible events of September 11.

Have we learned our lesson? Former Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the chap who shot up Fort Hood in 2009 shouting “Allahu akbar,” killing 14 and injuring 43, doesn’t think so. Last month, when it became clear the Taliban were about to take over in Afghanistan, he wrote a letter to them exclaiming “WE HAVE WON” and offering his “Congratulations on your victory over those who hate for the Laws of All-Mighty God to be supreme on the land. I pray to Allah that He helps you implement Shariah Law full[y], correctly and fairly.” 

Since we have just imported thousands of fundamentalist Afghans, we’ll see how long it takes before Nidal’s congratulations are taken up and advocated for adoption here at home. We don’t remember much, it seems, or for long. 

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