The United States never sought to be a superpower, let alone the world’s only one. Once we fulfilled our “manifest destiny” and stretched coast to coast, we’d had enough. We were content, largely, up until World War II to be a largely isolationist nation, without getting too involved in world affairs. World War I left a bitter taste in our mouth, and we withdrew behind the two mighty oceans that sheltered us from the strife and bickering of Europe.
That came to a crashing halt one Sunday morning in the territory of Hawaii. Those sneaky little Nips, the slant-eyed Japs, hit the United States – hit the United States harder than we thought possible, in a place where we felt safe and secure. Our senses of invulnerability and racial superiority were shattered, and all of a sudden the foreign madness was our problem. It took almost 4 years and over 400,000 American lives (along with many times that many of casualties from other lands), but we ended that war decisively.
Then we found ourselves in a totally unfamiliar place: the undisputedly most powerful nation on the earth, yet still facing a new, implacable foe in a former ally, the Soviet Union, and tired of fighting. We had to learn a new type of warfare – a “cold war” – when we didn’t openly fight our enemy, but instead fought through other means, or through other nations. It was a fight that would take over 40 years to come to a close.
At some point during that time, the very notion of power became something, for many people, to distrust – and its exercise by the United States itself became a cause for concern. Fears about abuses of that power became, over time, fear of accusations of abuse, and eventually evolved to the point to avoiding the potential for accusations, when during the Clinton administration they focused on military actions that could demonstrably be proven to not be in our own personal interests and directly connected to somehow benefiting the United States. For example, I seem to recall numerous arguments about our interventions in the Balkans and Somalia being defended as “purely humanitarian,” as if acting in any sort of self-interested fashion was somehow corrupt.
Looking back, I find myself wondering if part of the reason Ronald Reagan was such a better president than Bill Clinton was because in his younger days, Reagan had been a lifeguard. One of the first things lifeguards are taught is to first protect themselves, to not needlessly endanger themselves, when attempting a rescue. A lifeguard who doesn’t obey that rule not only doubles the number of people endangered, but has converted himself from an asset to a liability. Clinton didn’t seem to grasp that, flailing about in the seas of international conflicts, while Reagan carefully chose his battles. And in the long run, Clinton’s adventures often left us, as a nation, weaker and less respected around the world. Folks might not have liked Reagan, but they had little doubt about his resolve.
Power, Lord Acton famously said, corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. It seemed as if that truism had become ironclad law, the immovable hand of destiny, to the point where every single potential exercise of power held with it the risk of eternal damnation. At that point, any choice to act needs to be weighed and second-guessed – and the pressure to simply choose to not act becomes almost insurmountable.
I once read an analogy that compared America’s military might as to a ferocious guard dog, kept on a chain. Within the range of that chain, the dog is utterly invincible and unstoppable. Outside the chain’s radius, it can bark and growl, but is utterly impotent. The chain represents the self-imposed restraints America places on itself – political, social, and ethical – and right up through the turn of the millennium we kept willingly choosing to tighten that chain.
On September 11, 2001, that chain was untangled and loosened, and that dog was given the greatest freedom it had had in decades.