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Dented, Not Damaged: The American Empire After Afghanistan


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Hoover Institute

Dented, Not Damaged: The American Empire After Afghanistan

by Josef Joffe

Friday, September 24, 2021


Image credit: 

Poster UK 1819, Poster Collection, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.

When small, even middle-sized powers make grievous mistakes like fighting a losing war or ignoring deadly threats, they risk their place in the global hierarchy or, worse, their existence. Thus did France and Britain when they failed to fight Nazi Germany in the Thirties while still in position of strategic superiority. Instead of preventive war, it was “Munich.” Yet the mark of a superpower like the United States is a vast margin of error. It can absorb a deadly blow in Pearl Harbor 1941 and crush Japan in 1945. It can stumble badly in Vietnam and Afghanistan, but will not fall like France in 1940.

America plays in a different league. Its mistakes are not fatal. When Dean Acheson excluded South Korea from its defense perimeter in 1950, North Korea’s invasion followed swiftly. Yet America’s position in the global scheme remained unscathed. It bounced back and restored the status quo ante. Vietnam was humiliating, but after 1975, the U.S. still remained the greatest power on earth, ready to prevail in the next critical contests: the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Afghanistan after 9/11, and two Iraq wars. Did anybody think that the U.S. was on the way out when it tucked tail after losing 241 Marines to a terror attack in Beirut in 1983?

The analytical point is the distinction between the assets and achievements of power. The pay-offs of power were clearly negative in Vietnam and Afghanistan. But failure could not touch the asset side of the ledger—the enormous pile of chips the U.S. continues to bring to the table. Among these are the world’s no. 1 economy, the global reach of its sophisticated, battle-hardened army, and its unmatched cultural and technological clout.   :snip:   

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