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 American power, and for 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 American moral philosopher (and one of Obama’s favourite writers), wrote about the new age of American 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 programmes and lighted on the midsummer All-Star baseball game. There was a patriotic interlude, when the announcer said their thoughts were with the American servicemen and women “in the 153 countries where they are stationed”. That’s an impressive figure out of 192 member states of the UN.
American military spending is very much greater than the next 10 countries combined, friend or foe. Even now, 20 years after the Soviet Union began to crumble, the US air force and navy hold an immense number of nuclear warheads, weaponised 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. Even six years is longer than the combined length of American participation in the first and second world wars.
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 Americans 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 Americans were 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 1919-21.
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 Kerry?
Savage force was indeed used at that very time, though not against the IRA. Irish nationalists sometimes like to claim that those rebellions were “anti-colonial”, setting a pattern for further liberation movements, which is not so. In any case, what was notable was the lenience rather than the harshness used in Ireland, even by the hated Black and Tans, compared with elsewhere.
At exactly the time of the troubles, the infant Royal Air Force was putting down a rebellion in the new British territory of Iraq by bombing defenceless villages into submission. It was inconceivable that the same would have been done in west Cork. Since then, western powers have repeatedly bombed Asia and Africa. But today, bombing villages in Afghanistan and Iraq – quite apart from any namby-pamby ethical considerations – has proved to be by no means efficacious.
There are few more startling illustrations of this impotence of might than the pirates, or the country they come from. A hundred years ago, any one of half a dozen imperial powers could have conquered Somalia in a matter of weeks with a couple of gunboats and a few battalions.
Today Somalia has been a collapsed state for nearly 20 years, in lawless confusion that no outside power can or will subdue. It harbours bands of men in light craft armed with rifles who can seize 50,000-tonne tankers flying the flags of western states. And there is almost nothing anyone can do, despite Sunday’s escapade.
Since 1993 and the bloody “Black Hawk down” fiasco in Mogadishu, the Americans have steered well clear of Somalia. They could nuke it flat, but that doesn’t quite meet the case. And that episode is instructive. The Americans were horrified by the loss of 18 of their men, but at least 1,000 Somalis were killed at the same time. Likewise, the Americans have been perturbed by the loss of more than 4,000 of their forces in Iraq, as they were dismayed by nearly 60,000 US dead in Vietnam. But those compare with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who may have been killed in the past six years, and 2 million Vietnamese dead in that war.
Nothing is more frightening to us than suicide bombing. It is indeed repugnant, but it also proves what the Roman philosopher Seneca said long ago: “The man who is not afraid to die will always be your master.” That applies, above all, to prosperous, sybaritic, modern western societies, which no longer have any appetite for sacrifice and suffering. Is it any wonder we are mighty but weak at once?