America's enemies would be wise to avoid 'pulling the monkey's tail'

When vital US interests are at stake America keeps its most important commitments

A news magazine features a cartoon of Uncle Sam throwing down his badge illustrating America’s resignation as world policeman. America is in decline. It is said America is an unreliable ally, lacking the stomach to fight for its own values. You will have heard all these comments from pundits around the world this week, amid suggestions that America’s allies should be alarmed. Some Americans share this dismal declinist view.

Here’s Harvard Business Review bemoaning the parlous state of the US: “Real wages are falling. Productivity growth is down. Companies aren’t competitive in global markets. White-collar jobs are no longer secure. The nation’s infrastructure is collapsing. The federal deficit is soaring. The health system is deteriorating. The cities are unsafe. The schools are failing. The gap between rich and poor is widening.” But wait, that’s not now. That article is from July 1992. Decline, or fear of decline, is America’s oldest tradition.

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America is not pitiful, helpless or lacking determination

Almost 30 years later, in 2021, the same miserable commentaries are again fashionable – and again wrong. Broadcasters and writers compare the humanitarian mess in Afghanistan to the evacuation of US forces from Vietnam in the 1970s. Others point to President George H W Bush’s irresponsible encouragement of the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1991.

Saddam took his revenge and America let the Kurds down. But here’s a reality check: is anyone now actually arguing that in the 1970s the US should have continued the lost war in Vietnam? Is anyone seriously arguing that George H W Bush in 1991, having expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, should have invaded Iraq? We are all too aware of how the Iraq invasion by Bush’s son, George W Bush, in 2003 has turned out.

Smoke billows from an explosion in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's guest palace bombed during a coalition air raid 31 March 2003. Coalition warplanes pounded the Iraqi capital and its outskirts, with loud explosions rocking the city.     AFP PHOTO/Ramzi HAIDAR (Photo by RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP)

A more coherent argument by some commentators is that America’s enemies will be heartened and emboldened by the 2021 Afghanistan debacle.

Iran, under a new president with a brutal past, may see an opportunity to cause trouble. America’s friends, in particular in Europe, East Asia and the Gulf, feel uneasy. But is the US really unreliable?

American troops have been based in Europe and Japan for almost 80 years. American troops have been based in Korea since the 1950s. When vital US interests are at stake American presidents, even the worst of them, generally keep their most important commitments, contain potential enemies and support their friends for decades. Iran’s new leadership would be very unwise to push its luck with a US administration, for now humiliated by events in Afghanistan, but resolute against those who may threaten those vital American interests.

Yes, the US war in Afghanistan has been a failure. And yes, various terrorist groups may be re-energised and emboldened. But the history of the past century is littered with those who underestimate American power and determination. Among those who underestimated America are Hitler, Stalin, the militarists in Japan who attacked Pearl Harbour, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban in 2003, and many others. One apparently minor example is particularly instructive – the former Panamanian dictator General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Throughout the 1980s Noriega taunted the Americans, amassing a fortune by turning Panama into a drug dealing hub. When President George H W Bush’s patience was finally exhausted in 1989, in a matter of days, US forces invaded Panama and put Noriega in jail until his death in 2017. I spoke with those who formed the new Panamanian government and one memorably told me that when dealing with the American superpower “you can play with the monkey – but you must never pull its tail.” Noriega pulled the monkey’s tail.

America’s enemies would be well advised to pay attention to that story, and so would America’s friends. And US policy makers need to reflect too, that lengthy defence commitments in foreign lands work extremely well when American troops are generally welcomed by local people and their governments. Germany and South Korea are obvious examples. But lengthy commitments of troops in foreign lands with complex cultures where significant sections of the people feel that they are in some way under American occupation – Vietnam and Afghanistan – do not end well.

There are, in other words, plenty of lessons for all of us in the Afghanistan debacle, but the cartoon version of the US ceasing to be “world policeman” is simply that, a cartoon.

It is not fashionable to quote the disgraced American president Richard Nixon favourably, but Nixon recognised by 1970 that America could never “win” the Vietnam war just as Joe Biden recognised in 2021 that America can never “win” in Afghanistan.

Nixon told the American people that “if, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

Leaving Vietnam and Afghanistan are American failures, yes. But America is not pitiful, helpless or lacking determination. It remains the world’s most powerful nation. We should all remember that, especially those who wish America and Americans harm.

Published: August 30th 2021, 9:00 AM
Updated: August 31st 2021, 4:23 PM
Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National