Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Decline of US Power

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

January 17, 2014

Once again, Iraq and Afghanistan are front page news. Iraq is torn by a violent Sunni-Shiite split and al-Qaeda has taken control of two prominent cities. The country once again is near civil war.  Earlier this month, the US intelligence community produced a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) predicting that once US forces leave Afghanistan, the US-backed government almost certainly will collapse. (One agency, usually the CIA, writes an NIE and coordinates with most of the other fifteen intelligence agencies to publish the report as an intelligence “community” product.) 

Coming on the heels of the NIE is the publication of a new book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which slams President Obama for not believing in his own Afghanistan policy.   On top of this, Afghan President Karzai’s refusal so far to sign a bilateral defense agreement with Washington has added fuel to the fire. Consequently, it is unclear whether there will be an agreement in place to keep some American troops in Afghanistan after the official pullout date at the end of 2014. And, in response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the administration has stepped up the shipment of advanced weaponry to the Shiite-dominated Maliki government.

All of this, of course, not only has serious policy, financial, and human implications, it also is fodder for American political machinations. The NIE’s publication immediately drew a sharp, negative reaction from Obama administration policy makers and the administration is seething at Gates’s book. For their part, the Republicans have used the controversy over Afghanistan policy to highlight what they see as the failure of the administration to extricate the United States from Afghanistan and to leave that country on a secure footing. The Republicans also have argued that the administration is to blame for the deadly upheavals in Iraq because it has not adequately supported government forces.

But beyond the immediate implications and the political gamesmanship are deeper issues that the senior leadership in both major parties does not seem to grasp. They pay lip service to the fact that the world has changed, but have little understanding of how deep that change is and how it has impacted the United States and its role and place in the globalizing world. 

Arguably, the American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan provide a hinge point in the history of modern warfare. The United States entered these wars assuming they could be fought and won pretty much the way wars in the past were fought and won. That “conventional” part of each campaign was over quickly and both have entered a more decentralized, unconventional phase—one without uniforms, front lines, or adherence to the rules of warfare assumed in the Geneva Convention. We were and remain entirely unprepared to fight these new kinds of wars and, perhaps even more striking, continue to view warfare basically with the same traditional twentieth century approach.  

But the change in the nature of warfare is only part of the modern American conundrum. Certainly, we remain a major power and can change some things to our liking, but the world stage is now much more complex and the international playing field is much more level. It is now more common for others simply to ignore us and even oppose us. We no longer have the money, political influence, military capability, or diplomatic strength that we used to have. After a decade of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become clear that we can no longer impose our will on others to the same extent that we had been able to for much of the post-World War II world. Sadly, everyone seems to see this except the American political class, which is either in denial or simply oblivious.

We are a country in decline—both relatively and absolutely. There is no shame in this; it is simply history moving on. Countries, empires, and kingdoms have arisen and declined since the dawn of time and we are no different. This reality should be especially palpable for Christians who hopefully understand that it is God’s history that moves forward and we are the ones who must accommodate. In a practical sense, this means that finding answers to the pressing questions of human need and tragedy must conform to the real—not the hoped for—political world.

-  Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”