For the family of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama, his rescue by special forces was the best possible Easter present. For Americans it was an exhilarating display of US power, and for US President Barack Obama it was a gratifying demonstration that he isn’t the wimpish pacifist the Republicans called him.
But to a detached observer, this gung-ho adventure in the Indian Ocean is the rule-proving exception. What we have recently seen far more often is what a New York Times headline on the piracy story said last Thursday: “US power has limit.”
We’re dealing, that’s to say, with one of the most important discoveries of our time: the impotence of great might.
Today there is only one hyperpower. The US is, on the face of it, mightier than any other imperial power in history. And imperial is the word: it’s more than 50 years since Reinhold Niebuhr, the great US moral philosopher, wrote about the new age of US empire, “however frantically we deny it.”
By now it’s scarcely worth denying, frantically or otherwise. One evening last year I was idly channel-hopping through the sports programs and lighted on the midsummer All-Star baseball game. There was a patriotic interlude, when the announcer said their thoughts were with the US servicemen and women “in the 153 countries where they are stationed.” That’s an impressive figure out of 192 member states of the UN.
US military spending is very much greater than the next 10 countries combined. Even now, 20 years after the Soviet Union began to crumble, the US air force and navy hold an immense number of nuclear warheads, weaponized and ready to go — but where? With all that might, the military operations in western Asia have turned out to be far more difficult than Washington originally envisaged. By the autumn it will be eight years since US forces entered Afghanistan and it’s six since the invasion of Iraq.
Although the Afghan campaign was originally more justifiable than Iraq (which isn’t saying much), it now looks less winnable. Even in Iraq, the vaunted success of the “surge” may prove deceptive if it persuades the US that they can win a permanent military victory there.
This is not as new as we might think. Go back to the heyday of the cold war. The US and the Soviet Union each held a nuclear arsenal that could annihilate the other, or for that matter the whole world. They seemed mightier by far than any other military and imperial powers in history, surely capable of defeating any enemy. But what happened? The US was humiliated in Vietnam by one rag-tag peasant army, and the Russians were humiliated in Afghanistan by another. Two ferocious lions might be ready to fight each other to the death, but couldn’t deal with swarms of gnats.
One could go back further than that. In a Dublin television studio three years ago we were discussing the legacy of the 1916 Easter rising, and something I said provoked a politician to shout, “We beat you in the war of independence” — the somewhat grandiloquent name for the troubles of 1919-1921.
Well, yes and no. In 1919 the British army was several million men strong and had just played a leading part in winning the greatest war then known.
The idea that it could have been defeated in conventional military terms by a few hundred gunmen (guerrillas or terrorists, according to taste) is demonstrably absurd. What the British were among the first to learn was the difficulty of subduing an irregular rising that enjoyed active or passive support among the local populace. In those circumstances normal military force could be of very little use, or even counterproductive. How do you use artillery against a handful of men bivouacked in the hills of County Kerry?