Max Rodenbeck reviews five recent books in the New York Review of Books:
America’s past offers many examples of seeming setbacks being turned to dramatic and lasting advantage. The sinking of the battleship Maine is one that comes to mind, or of the liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, or of half the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. More recently, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan exposed a vein that allowed America and its allies to bleed the decaying Evil Empire, just as Saddam Hussein’s lunge at Kuwait in 1990 revealed an opportunity to score a number of American goals, from smashing this dangerous man’s army, to testing and displaying the power of new weapons, to warning potential rivals away from the Gulf’s crucial oil resources.
All these strategic overreactions had something in common. In each case, the identity and nature of the enemy were abundantly clear. In most such cases, too, little discussion took place to clarify the stakes involved, the advantages to be gained, or the optimum means for winning them. (Which usually meant the application of overwhelming force.)
Yet while the strikes against New York and Washington seemed to fit the first part of this historical template, they did not quite suit the rest. Here was yet another of the “sneak attacks” that seem to have punctuated America’s rise, demanding yet another crushing response. But where and who was the enemy? What was his motivation for attacking in the first place? What, beyond merely destroying this adversary, was the strategic prize waiting to be gained, a prize that surely must be worthy of an unchallenged global superpower? Which were the appropriate tools to be used for this broader mission? What were the risks?
By now it is clear that in pursuing the grand counterstroke, American policy has gone somewhat astray.