Jacob Heilbrunn

The Destruction of America

America is crumbling. Today's story in the New York Times about the calamitous effects for commuters of shutting down Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road, which is reliant on claptrap equipment dating to 1913, has to leave a sinking feeling in anyone concerned about the future. "It makes you want to sell all your stocks and put your head in the ground," one acquaintance remarked to me. "It has a fin-de-siecle feel."

Indeed it does. In the latest print edition of the National Interest, the sage David Rieff lashes into the savvy Peter Beinart for failing to address the more profound causes of American decline in his book The Icarus Syndrome. Actually, Rieff goes further. He believes, if I understand him rightly, that Beinart actively occludes them. Like Andrew J. Bacevich, Rieff sees something more fundamental at work than mere hubris. They have a point: John Seeley, always himself misused, mocked rather than advanced the idea that the British empire had arisen in a mere fit of an absence of mind, pointing instead to the systematic manner in which successive monarchs had begun to create it.

As it pours hundreds of billions into Afghanistan, emulating, in some, not all, respects, the British fighting on what was dashingly known as the North-West frontier, I wonder how long America can sustain a bloated defense establishment that makes the British one look like a piker. But it doesn't come down to simply funds, but also nerves. In recently reading Alan Moorehead's classic The White Nile, which chronicles the subjugation of Central Africa in the latter half of the nineteenth century, I was struck by the confidence (and sheer ruthlessness) of the various explorers and missionaries who set the stage for Herbert Kitchener to sweep through the Sudan and lay waste to British foes, pointing to the slaughter of some 50,000 Arabs as giving them "a good dusting," at least according to a young Winston Churchill's eyewitness account.

Likening America to the crepuscular days of the British empire has become somewhat fashionable. Back in the prehistoric days when the National Interest existed only in print and the internet wasn't even really a mote in anyone's eye, Samuel Huntington, in countering Francis Fukuyama, once observed that the very prospect of decline can fortify a nation against it. But Barack Obama's America can't even keep its trains running, let alone on time.