By Bruce Thornton
February 13, 2012
In 1868, a British army led by Sir Robert Napier sailed from India to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) to rescue several English and European hostages from the mentally unstable, sadistic King Theodore. Theodore had become enraged a few years earlier because his letter to Queen Victoria asking for military assistance had been ignored, and so he retaliated by taking the hostages. Napier’s expedition required the building of a port, railroad, and road in order for his army of 13,000 soldiers to march to Theodore’s stronghold Magdala, 400 brutal miles from the coast. After the three-month march, the British met Theodore’s army at Magadala and routed it. The hostages were released, and Theodore committed suicide. Then Napier led his army back to the coast and sailed away, surprising many who believed that rescuing the hostages was a pretext for colonial expansion.
The Abyssinian expedition illustrates the British awareness that an empire must defend not just its material interests, but also its prestige. Insults and injuries to its citizens cannot be tolerated, for rivals and enemies will interpret such forbearance as a weakness to be exploited. The expedition was an expensive, massive undertaking, but one necessary in order to warn the Empire’s potential enemies that England would pay any price to defend its honor and interests. Power is not just about material resources, but also the perceptions of others that power will be used, a perception that works as a force multiplier. As Vergil says in the Aeneid, “They have power because they seem to have power.”
History is filled with examples of how costly it is for a nation to allow its prestige to be damaged, thus weakening its power and inviting aggression. By 1938, Hitler had no respect for the English or the French despite their combined military might, given their failure to respond to Germany’s serial violations of the Versailles settlement over the previous two decades. Thus Hitler’s brilliant manipulation of diplomacy in the Czechoslovakia crisis, when England and France, as Churchill would write later, “presented a front of two over-ripe melons crushed together.” Hitler agreed: a year later, he would respond to England and France’s guarantee of Poland’s security by sneering, “I saw them at Munich. They are little worms.”
Likewise the U.S. paid the price for its loss of prestige following the abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975. As Jimmy Carter publicly announced a “crisis of confidence,” fretted over America’s “recent mistakes” and “recognized limits,” and cut spending on the military, an emboldened Soviet Union went on a geopolitical rampage throughout the Third World. Equally ominous was the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the seizure of the embassy hostages, a grievous affront to our prestige met with toothless sanctions, U.N. resolutions, secret negotiations, and the whole repertoire of excuses to substitute talk for action. A byproduct of this blow to U.S. prestige was the creation of an oil-rich jihadist regime in the heart of the Middle East, one that immediately started creating and supporting terrorist groups that for 30 years have murdered Americans. A series of jihadist attacks followed Iran’s victory over the superpower America, from the 1983 Beirut bombing of the Marine barracks, to the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, none of which were met with a punitive response that would have made clear the overwhelming price to be paid for assaulting America’s interests and citizens. So it was no surprise that Osama bin Laden, convinced that America was a “weak horse” with “foundations of straw,” on September 11, 2001 sent his jihadists to attack the very centers of American power and prestige in Washington D.C. and New York.
The short-lived restoration of American prestige wrought by George Bush’s routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the destruction of the Hussein regime in Iraq soon dissipated in the administration of Barack Obama and his promise to “embrace a new era of engagement” and a “new way forward” with America’s enemies. In practice this has meant his solicitous “outreach” to thug regimes like Iran and Syria, the appeasing and unreciprocated “reset” of relations with Russia, the Carter-like pledges that America would be a “partner mindful of his own imperfections,” the undercutting and hounding of stalwart allies like Israel, the craven apologies to the Muslim world for a “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” and the abandonment of unsavory allies like Hosni Mubarak, who nonetheless better served America’s interests than the Muslim Brothers soon to run Egypt are likely to.
All we have gained from Obama’s “new way forward” is further damage to our prestige, and the perception that America is an unreliable friend and a contemptible enemy. Iran blusters, threatens, and continues to work furiously on obtaining nuclear weapons, with the patent support of Russia and China. Russia ignores our sermons on international morality and provides diplomatic and material support to Syria’s Bashar al Assad’s brutal slaughter of his citizens. Our precipitous withdrawal from Iraq promises to squander all that has been gained for the last 9 years and to further strengthen Iran. The Taliban have marked our announced 2014 withdrawal date from Afghanistan on their calendars, in the meantime tempting us into “peace negotiations,” and demanding as the price just for starting talks the release of their murderous colleagues from Guantanamo, 5 of whom Obama is thinking of releasing as a “good will gesture.” The allegedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority is moving closer to forming a unity government with the genocidal Hamas, without any worries that the near $1 billion in U.S. financial support will stop. And most recently, the interim Islamist government in Egypt has indicted 16 American NGO workers and kept the 6 still in Egypt from leaving the country, virtually kidnapping them. Like the Palestinians, the Egyptians don’t respect us enough to fear that we will cut off the more than $1.5 billion in annual aid.
In short, thanks to Obama’s foreign policy, our enemies and rivals do not believe that we will vigorously defend our interests and citizens. We have the most lethal military power in the history of the world, but we lack the prestige based on the certainty of friend and foe alike that we will use that power to protect our friends and punish our enemies. Great powers decline for many reasons, but losing respect for their power is surely one of them.