Losing Mythic Authority

Losing Mythic Authority

Mini Teaser: As a result of America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have lost the global clout we derived from our role in World War II—for good.

by Author(s): Michael Vlahos

MOST NOW acknowledge that America has failed in its war. Some see that failure limited to Iraq, while others describe a larger strategic liability. Thus the question is in part: How big is America's failure? But more significantly, what are the consequences?

In broad terms, we have squandered the World War II canon. We have lost its mythic authority. We are at the historical end of its protective embrace. We are on our own now. This intangible is the most significant, and in some ways surprising, consequence of the war. It has resulted from the most temporal of events and will indeed deliver most apparent costs. But before considering the importance of the consequences, it is first necessary to map the landscape of failure, to diagram its dimensions. Our failure has unfolded in four dimensions: in terms of military objectives; reconstruction promises; "hearts and minds" goals and lofty, transformative ambitions for the region.

Failure How Big, How Far?

MILITARILY, AMERICA'S initial success in Afghanistan and Iraq did not bring secure and stable environments to these countries. However, America's military campaigns have overseen a yearly escalation in chaos and violence in both. And while it is to be hoped that U.S. forces will eventually be extricated successfully, they will leave behind a menagerie of Islamist principalities locked in ceaseless struggle. These, of course, were not our military goals.

America also pledged to redeem and uplift Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we "reconstructed" Germany and Japan after World War II. This promise was not kept. Both countries are in ruins. By some measures, they are worse off than ever. Moreover, money is short, so there is little more we can do to help them. Our policies and practices have perversely helped to achieve the wreckage over which we now preside.

Further, we are losing what we declared to be a "war of ideas." After September 11, the world-even the Muslim world-rushed to our emotional support, but by now we have convinced the overwhelming majority of Muslims that we are attacking Islam itself. We have not liberated Muslims long abused by radical and fundamentalist ideology, as we said we would, or brought them greater freedom. We have failed in our promise to support democracy movements and dissidents, and continue to support political tyranny. Among Arab Muslims especially, we are universally hated.

We also boasted of our aim to transform the region, signaling that not even our "friends and allies" would escape the mighty wind of democratic reform. That boast has evaporated. And we now sit by and watch open political repression without even a mention. Not only do Arab regimes no longer fear us, but others, like Pakistan's, openly mock us through their support of the Taliban. Our great Muslim adversary, Iran, has gratefully accepted our help in achieving almost all its strategic goals, including formal spheres of influence in Mesopotamia and western Afghanistan. Again, this was hardly our goal.

The aggregate consequence of failure across these four dimensions of our war effort abroad is the larger damage to American interests and the American cause.

The Ebb of the Orb

IT IS IMPORTANT to discuss the consequences of this war and not simply look on the bright side, which has been an indulgence of both liberals and neoconservatives-the progenitors of this war. If the latter still believe in victory-requiring a future showdown with Iran-the former think that returning to the classic American vision of "liberal internationalism" will also somehow put things right.

There is an established tendency in Washington to avoid recognizing the consequences of our already entrenched strategic failure. Indeed, consequences are invoked only in the domestic-political "mosh pit", as in: "Such-and-such terrible outcome will occur if my policy is not followed."

But the consequences are already with us. And like strategic failure, they can even be listed: in terms of loss of our standing and influence, military reputation, national unity and ability to secure regional stability.

To some degree, it is no wonder that liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike continue to argue the bright-side scenario. Using the word "loss" suggests some case for optimism. And describing the situation as an indeterminate "loss", rather than strategic failure, merely implies a temporary strategic disadvantage that good policy can repair. After all, we have not actually been defeated. But what if American strategic failure is not a bad storm but a sea change? What if we are looking at nothing less than the wreckage of American mythic authority?

This loss is not some literary tempest in the making either. It subtly but deeply undercuts American world authority. And authority is important in our world of nations because it, and not power, establishes the pecking order in relationships between nations-and the assurance of authority breeds loyalty.

So, the loss of authority may have even bigger consequences than the loss of power. Soviet authority, after all, vanished in a crystal moment in Moscow. Yeltsin's insurgents knew the Red Army would not roll out the tanks that day. Revolutions are made in such moments. Raw power is helpless when abandoned by authority.

Since 1941, world authority has been vested in the United States of America. The transcendent U.S. military has often been the agent of that authority. More persistently, however, our military power has served as the central symbol-the orb and scepter-of American world authority.

This authority has been confirmed as much by its daily acknowledgment over the generations as by public oaths or expressions of fealty. Our world authority was vested in ordinary speech: We were the "free world", the "Western democracies" or even just nato. So, the United States might be invoked casually and in a collective sense as a sort of world identity. The reality of American world authority was history's fact of life for sixty years.

What was the secret of its staying power? Why did it remain so strong, in spite of stumbles and missteps like Vietnam? The secret: America's world authority was mythic authority, and the source of this myth was World War II. In that terrible war Americans sacrificed selflessly to save and redeem all humanity. Moreover (and just as importantly), America was so strong and committed to the world that its energies moved history. It was not "the victors get to write the history"; it was incontrovertible, existential, absolute truth.

Myth legitimated and endowed sixty years of American world authority, founded on the celestial certainty of American altruism. Nowhere was this conviction stronger than in the breasts of Americans themselves. Our modern identity was forged in World War II, where all our old traditions like ingots were melded into new iron. But as throughout America's historical identity, its mythic authority was built on a military foundation.

This was not unappreciated by Americans. In the afterglow of Cold War victory we relished the hyperpower sobriquet. We celebrated the truth that humankind, and even the planet, depended on a strange confluence of raw power and a mythic (even mystical) claim on the world's collective imagination. It was rock-of-ages authority. How else could we have imagined that history had ended?

Thus to our eyes the world's reaction after 9/11 was properly respectful. Its peoples fully anticipated a condign American response. The wrath of God himself was about to be unleashed. Humankind waited, and we responded.

Six years later we see not so much the wreckage of American strategy and policy, or even of the national interest, but, more darkly, the wreckage of the mythic foundation of American world authority. Here, we have become the wreckers of our very own identity. The resulting deconstruction of American world authority can be seen in each of its dimensions.

Deconstructing Mythic Authority

WHEN OUR military entered the fray after 9/11 the world held its breath: U.S. Olympians would rain down death and retribution like gods of war. Six years later our ground combat forces are literally worn out, unable to subdue ragtag insurgents who themselves have become the successor polities of the place formerly known as Iraq. If anything can be worse than battlefield defeat, it is to be redundant in it: to fight ineffectively and to no purpose. This alone is an unimaginable contrast to World War II.

Victorious American occupiers always rebuild the countries they defeat-that is not simply historical fact, but more like the World War II Golden Rule. Yet rather than reconstruction, destruction is the rule now. This has been, however, the result of no simple defeat, but rather of transgression compounded by corruption, greed and ineptitude-which so contrasts with the American ethos that many are left breathless by the unimpeachably documented truth.

World War II and the continuing Cold War were also triumphs of the "American Idea." Peoples everywhere thrilled to the promise of freedom and democracy, so the canon told us, and we did as the sacred canon prescribed. How then did we fail to spread the good news this time? In contrast, how did we manage-as polls show year after year-to convince Muslims that we see Islam as a lesser civilization, and that our true intent is its submission to a secular vision?

Essay Types: Book Review