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The Ukraine Conflict Is Not About American Freedom

I vividly recall the day in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall, the preeminent symbol of the Cold War, was breached. I was then an Army officer serving in West Germany. In the blink of an eye, the world order that I had come to accept as permanent simply vanished.

A new order was emerging. Notables gifted with (or claiming to possess) great political insight and savvy vied with one another in identifying its contours. History had ended. A unipolar order had emerged, with a sole superpower presiding as the “indispensable nation,” the Vietnam War—heretofore a defining event for Americans of my generation—consigned to a footnote in the chronicle of American triumph. No viable alternative to liberal democratic capitalism existed. Replenished and revitalized, the American Century appeared certain to continue indefinitely.

Then, in remarkably short order, complications ensued: wars, a presidential impeachment, 9/11, more war, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, more war, an accelerating environmental crisis, domestic cultural upheaval, Donald Trump, another impeachment, a devastating pandemic, an assault on the US Capitol, and yet another impeachment. With the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, events reached a nadir of sorts as the nation’s longest war ever ended in abject failure.

The American Century had, however belatedly, ended. It was Vietnam all over again—only worse. “In the aftermath of Saigon redux,” wrote the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, “every enemy will draw the lesson that the United States is a feckless power, with no lasting appetite for defending the Pax Americana.” By cravenly pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, Stephens asserted in a previous column, “we are extending our 50-year streak from Vietnam, to Somalia, to Iraq, of being at least as dangerous to our friends as we are to our enemies.” The likely implications were dire. “Retreat needn’t always lead to surrender; but, as Napoleon is reputed to have said, ‘the logical outcome of retreat is surrender.’”

Others agreed. Something definitive and irreversible had occurred. “There’s no polite way to say it,” one observer wrote. “Pax Americana died in Kabul.” The war’s outcome, another wrote, showed that “American exceptionalism always was illusory.” It was the 1970s all over again—or worse still, the 1930s. “A shift toward a more isolationist US foreign policy” was gaining momentum. Allowing the Taliban to prevail in Afghanistan marked not merely the “death of democracy” there but was “reminiscent of the appeasement of Hitler and has started the countdown to World War III.”

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