American Colossus, Get Thee to Rehab: Learn to Exercise Power Wisely
With the recent one-two punch — the betrayal of the Kurds, our allies in fighting ISIS, and now the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassim Suleimani — president Donald Trump has unequivocally established America as an international bully.
Bully, noun: one who seeks to harm, intimidate, or coerce those perceived as vulnerable; one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker or smaller (my emphases). Additionally, bullies don’t give a fig what others, allies included, think of their bullying. Taken together, this definition now fits the U.S. We are in a pantheon of bad actors we don’t really want to be in.
This is not to say Suleimani was not a bad actor himself, and a very bad one (and Republicans who call Democrats “terrorist-loving” should be ashamed). Iran is a leading sponsor of state terror and Suleimani was its chief architect, with the blood of Americans and Iran’s neighbors, including Iraq, on his hands. But to eliminate him while he was on Iraqi soil, and not consulting the Iraqis beforehand — no wonder Iraq now orders U.S. troops out. Iraq is furious at Trump for putting an ally in the crossfire.
And earlier, the Kurds certainly deserved consulting, not the insult of betrayal. But bullies don’t care about betrayal.
Of course, Trump’s bullying was on view before this: His notorious phone call with Ukraine’s president last July, in which he asked “a favor” — dirt on Democratic rival Joe Biden — meanwhile withholding $400 million in military aid Ukraine needed in its hot war with Russia. This is behavior of a mafia capo, not the president of the United States. Plus, there is Trump’s nonstop nasty treatment of our NATO allies; his reference to various African countries as “s***hole”; the list is very long.
And now that list includes Trump threatening to bomb the cultural heritage sites precious to the countries he targets, starting with Iran. Saner heads apparently talked him out of this war crime he contemplated. But imagine if Iran threatened to bomb the Statue of Liberty, or raze the battlefield at Gettysburg…..
And not to overlook the other planned assassinations, the thousands of drone strikes and air strikes, some killing civilians — all clandestine — that the U.S. carries out, for what purpose, it is not clear, other than that we have the bullets, drones, and bombers….
No wonder polls show the world’s opinion of Trump’s America is falling. It is heartbreaking for conscientious Americans to see our nation becoming an international pariah.
There will be consequences for our contempt shown the world. Americans got a whiff of those consequences when, reacting to the Suleimani assassination, Iran, vowing “harsh” revenge, fired a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. In those hours, Americans felt the fear that poet Emily Dickinson described as “zero at the bone.” Fortunately, no U.S. troops were killed, but unfortunately, in the fog of what seemed like war, Iran mistakenly shot down a passenger jet, killing all 176 onboard.
The big consequence of acting the contemptuous bully, of course, is this: The contemptuous bully will sooner or later find himself alone — exposed, vulnerable, in mortal peril — with no allies being moved, through the bonds of solidarity and affection, to come to his aid. In a dangerous world, going it alone, and going it contemptuously, is itself dangerous.
Biden made this point in a speech shortly after the Suleimani assassination: “At precisely the moment when we should be rallying our allies to stand beside us and hold the line against threats, Donald Trump’s shortsighted ‘America First’ dogmatism has come home to roost.” Then, in words that leap out: “We are alone now. We’re alone and we’ll have to bear the cost of Donald Trump’s folly.”
With this deadly U.S.-Iran exchange, other Democratic presidential candidates are now addressing foreign policy — finally. While the debate will address various policy objectives — the “endless wars” that America has engaged in since 9/11 — the debate should also address another angle: How America acts in the world, specifically how Trump in his recklessness has made America an international bully, and the threat to America that lies therein. Biden will no doubt expand on his point that America is now alone, a dangerous place to be. The other candidates should, too.
Why? Because: America will always be a Colossus. By virtue of our booming economy and booming military — ours equals the military of the next seven most powerful countries combined — America will always be a heavy-weight in the world. Add to that a pop culture that exerts a powerful allure on the world, especially the youth, and America (in pop parlance) rules.
But: America must learn how to handle power better — more judiciously, more humanely, more wisely. Have we ever tutored ourselves in this all-important art? Right now, what the world sees in America is an angry Colossus — and the sight, and the experience, is frightening. For just one example from a super-abundance: Trump threatening North Korea with “fire and fury, like the world has never seen!” Often these life-and-death threats are fired off from Trump’s toy pop-gun, Twitter.
This tension — how to handle great power — has existed since the end of World War II, when America emerged as a victor. While we used a winning hand in the immediate postwar era for good, serving as architect in constructing the institutions ensuring collective security and international cooperation, becoming “Leader of the Free World” — the apotheosis of wise power — this was also when the epithet “the ugly American” came into use, denoting the American who’s an overbearing know-it-all, contemptuous of other cultures, a bully.
(Related to, but going back to America’s origins, before we acquired great power, is another tension: how to handle our absolute freedom. Mishandled, this freedom deforms into what author Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk,” the apotheosis of which now sits in the White House. We have a lot of rehab to do.)
Ultimately, the question of handling great power, the power inhering in a Colossus, is a moral one: America indeed has the power to unleash “fire and fury, like the world has never seen,” but should it? It is no help that we surrendered both moral language and judgment decades ago, but, tellingly, in the grand reckoning now underway on multiple fronts — on race, sexual assault, guns, climate change, et al. — Americans are coming to see the need for moral judgment, to determine right from wrong. It is also no help that today’s pop culture prioritizes the fight club over the philosophy club, but if the mainstream matures, pop culture may, too.
International relations requires mutual respect among nations; otherwise, when one nation feels dissed, it will seek payback, needing to “save face” and “not show weakness” — the historic path to war and what we just heard from Iran as it paid back Trump’s assassination of Suleimani. In this system, big powers like America bear a special onus — the onus of understanding the impact of their actions on others not big — an onus reflected in the old adage of the rock and the age: Rock falls on egg, too bad for the egg. Egg falls on rock, still too bad for the egg.
This is a hinge moment for America: Will the American Colossus continue to bully the world — or will it grow up, get collegial again, mature? To do so, we need to understand the peril that comes with being a bully, remember that “zero-at-the-bone” fear when Iran vowed revenge, relearn the value of cooperation and alliances, tutor ourselves in the proper use of power. And the American public, so angry at so many things, might reconsider that anger in the context of the world’s misery and of history, and cool our jets.
And, of course, we must oust Donald “Big Bully” Trump from power.
If we do all this — in other words, if we mature — we could make America great again.
Image: “Colossus,” by Francisco Goya (1746–1828).