September 13, 2013 4:59 am
“The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full,” Matthew Arnold wrote in “Dover Beach“ (1867), “… But now I only hear / its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world.”
The roar Arnold had in mind was the sound of Christianity’s withdrawal from Western Europe. But his words describe equally well what is happening in the Greater Middle East. President Obama put it this way during his speech to the nation Tuesday evening: “For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security,” including in this geographically central, resource-rich, and conflict-ridden region. But now we are weary of the burden. “A veteran put it more bluntly,” the president said. “‘This nation is sick and tired of war.’”
America has left Iraq. America is leaving Afghanistan. America was so reluctant to participate in the NATO war that toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and so passive and hesitant in playing a role in Libyan reconstruction, development, and security, that our ambassador and three other Americans were killed in an assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound a year ago. The chief suspects in that attack remain at large. For over two years, America has watched confusedly as Egypt whipsaws between Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, and General Sisi.
And for over two years America has done its best not to become involved in the Syrian Civil War. Even now, as President Obama says America must act in response to Bashar al-Assad’s latest use of chemical weapons, he also says there will be no boots on the ground, while his secretary of State describes any attack as “unbelievably small” and an unnamed official says that after a strike Assad “will still be able to eat Cheerios.” To delay the use of American force, to forestall America’s reentry into the region, President Obama stunned the world in asking for a congressional authorization no one expects him to win, and by embracing a farcical Russian proposal to secure Syrian WMD that no one expects to work.
What happens when the sea recedes? The shoreline is exposed. Sand crabs and sea gulls and seaweed appear on the beach: Iranians and Saudis, Russians and Taliban. They come to fill the void left by the vacating American tide. The lower the tide becomes, the more daring the actions of the creatures liberated by its wake.
For several years now Americans have been comfortable in the delusion that the benefits, such as they are, of a global economy and of a world where war is a rarity can be enjoyed without cost. We can look inward, slash defense spending, gut the Navy, pull out from theaters of combat and from strategic bases, ignore the political character of Islamism, and otherwise pretend that at heart all human beings share the same feelings and want the same things, and life will go on as usual. And perhaps life will go on as usual, for most people, in most places in the country. After all: America is huge, protected by two oceans, and at peace with its neighbors.
But inevitably there will come a time when a lack of maintenance causes the international structure that America has built over decades to fall apart; when inwardness and self-preoccupation and “nation building here at home” exacts a cost of its own; when the flotsam and jetsam left behind by the receding tide, the sand crabs and seagulls and seaweed, begin to take over the shore. That time may have begun this week.
Pretty good description but I would instinctively suggest it began before this week. In the last 15-20 years it is hard to say exactly where it began, and/or accelerated. I remember a pillar engrained in Bush’s first campaign against nation building, and meddling foreign entanglements. I do think, at the time, he was being sincere.