No Longer the Top Banana

We Americans are in denial. We assume that our country is a military superpower. The sad fact is that we no longer are one. We were demoted. The rest of the world largely understands this. The polite ones, like most of the European countries, feel it is kinder not to draw it to our attention. Like a once popular diva, they are content to let the realization slowly dawn on us. Eventually, after performing at enough half-empty concert halls, they know we will figure it out.

Other countries have been observing us warily. They have mostly coped by staying at the far edges of the gorilla cage hoping we would not notice them. Of all the gorillas in the cage though, we were the most fearsome. We looked like we weighed 800 pounds. We thumped our chests, howled and hissed a lot. We liked to kick those lesser gorillas who pouted or spat at us. However, often we would settle down. We could smile nicely and even share our bananas with our friends. Sometimes other gorillas tried to acquire favor by giving us some of their bananas. Occasionally they helped us beat up other obnoxious gorillas in the cage. Who though could predict when we would go through another manic phase? Therefore, most gorillas stayed out of our way. More than once, they looked at us with scorn. They wondered what was it about us that even though we had so many bananas, we could still be such a loose cannon. Now, after watching us get kicked hard in the ribs a few times, falling over and squealing in pain, we no longer look quite so fearsome. In fact, now that we are on the floor of the cage, some are working with the other gorillas to figure out a way to keep us there.

How can this be? The United States has the best-equipped, best-trained and most expensive military in the world. We can move our power anywhere in the world. Our aircraft can slip through radars. Our spy satellites can see basketballs on the ground from hundreds of miles away. Our intelligence services reputedly have computers than can sift through millions of calls per second.

The irony is we lost our superpower status in part by being too good at winning conventional wars. We have outthought and outspent our rivals. There is no nation left in the world, except perhaps foolhardy ones like North Korea that would directly attack the United States. In that sense, we have succeeded. Fear and intimidation may be crude methods of ensuring compliance, but they tend to be effective. Unfortunately, what we largely missed is that we failed to prepare sufficiently for unconventional wars. While we have the ability to defend our own borders from attack, we no longer have both the will and the means to require other regimes to bend to our will.

The recent war between Israel and Hezbollah is a textbook case for our changing times. Israel is the 600-pound gorilla in the Middle East part of the gorilla cage, thanks largely to the many bananas we have given it. If it chooses to do so, it is bye bye Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or any country in that region that threatens its existence. It might come at the cost of using its nuclear weapons and give the country permanent ostracism from the world community. However, as long as it has its nuclear card and other Arab states do not then Israel can win any conventional war against any state in the Middle East.

Of course, these countries are no longer stupid enough to directly wage war against Israel. Instead, they use proxies. Why should Syria put its soldiers at harm when there are passionate paramilitary forces ready to do its dirty work? These forces have no expectation of realizing their ultimate goals in the short term, but they do have tenacity and unbelievable passion. Their method of success is to use the equivalent of Chinese water torture. They are realizing that modern wars are won through attrition. They are realistic and expect that this war will last generations. Yet they are also confident of ultimate success.

Unlike Israel, the United States does not have enemies on its doorsteps. If we had to defend our two thousand mile border with Canada against the threat of rockets, we would be as inept, if not more inept than the Israelis were against Hezbollah. We might even imitate some of their tactics, perhaps by leveling large parts of Montreal and Toronto. It is unlikely though that it would solve our problem. Even if Canada had the will to remove paramilitary groups from its border with us, it is unlikely they would have the means and the people to finish the job. This was the essence of Lebanon’s problem. Its military was too poorly equipped to ensure that Hezbollah could not attack Israel. Not all the Israeli air strikes in the world could coerce them to do something they were incapable of achieving. In fact, the air strikes made Lebanon less capable of restraining Hezbollah.

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