Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

American ‘Freedom Man’ is Made of Straw

Bret Stephens' foolish caricature of America only nurses our delusions about 'the good' we've done in the world.
Vietnamese Civilians Running From Napalm

Is a penchant for moral posturing part of a newspaper columnist’s job description? Sometimes it seems so. But if there were a prize for self-indulgent journalistic garment renting, Bret Stephens of The New York Times would certainly retire the trophy. 

To introduce a recent reflection on “the global lesson from the regional catastrophe that is Donald Trump’s retreat in Syria,” Stephens begins with a warm-and-fuzzy parable. “The time is the early 1980s,” he writes.

The place is the South China Sea. A sailor aboard the U.S.S. Midway, an aircraft carrier, spots a leaky boat jammed with people fleeing tyranny in Indochina. As he helps bring the desperate refugees to safety, one of them calls out: “Hello, American sailor — Hello, Freedom Man.”

Today, alas, Freedom Man has become “a fair-weather friend,” according to Stephens. Thanks to President Trump, America can no longer be trusted. And “the idealism that stormed Normandy, fed Europe, democratized Japan, and kept West Berlin free belongs to an increasingly remote past.”

How I wish that this litany of good deeds accurately summarized U.S. history in the decades since American idealism charged ashore at Omaha Beach. But wishing won’t make it so—unless, perhaps, you make your living as a newspaper columnist.

How, you might ask, did it come about that in the 1980s, so many people—an estimated 800,000 overall—were fleeing Southeast Asia in leaky boats, with some few finding eventual sanctuary on American warships? Don’t look to Stephens for an answer to this obviously relevant question.

As it turns out, they fled because Freedom Man had forsaken them. After years of vainly attempting to transform the Republic of Vietnam into a viable sovereign state capable of defending itself, the United States called it quits and recalled its troops. In the interim, Freedom Man had sustained and inflicted very heavy casualties during a long and exceptionally violent armed conflict. For the South Vietnamese, the eventual legacy of Freedom Man’s abbreviated tenure included cultural despoliation, a countryside teeming with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance and carcinogenic chemicals, millions confined to concentration camps, and subjugation to communist rule that continues to the present day.

Nor is this the only instance of Freedom Man cutting loose an ally. During World War II, the United States forged a close alliance with Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek. Defeating Imperial Japan defined our common cause. Yet soon after Japan‘s surrender, the Truman administration abandoned Chiang, Freedom Man having concluded that he was a bad bet. Mao Tse-tung’s communists triumphed.

Thirty years later, the Shah of Iran suffered a similar fate. Has Freedom Man ever had a more loyal ally? Regardless, when the Shah most needed Freedom Man’s support, Washington pulled the plug and the ayatollahs seized power in Tehran.

As for Freedom Man betraying the Kurds, Stephens may not have noticed, but it’s happened before, on multiple occasions. The title of a recent essay by Adam Weinstein in The New Republic could just as well have appeared in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s: “America Is Screwing the Kurds Yet Again.” 

Stephens correctly observes that his Freedom Man anecdote captures what many Americans “like hearing about themselves.” But it has never expressed who we actually are. To nurse such delusions is to falsify history. Doing so serves only to distract from the sequence of events that landed U.S. troops in the chaos of partially dismembered Syria in the first place.

After 9/11, acting ostensibly pursuant to the idealistic tradition in which Stephens purports to believe, Freedom Man rode into the Middle East with guns blazing. That he meant well goes without saying. Yet in his wake came the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Freedom Man cannot absolve himself of responsibility for the war, pestilence, famine, and death that ensued in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.

President Trump’s treatment of the Kurds qualifies as both indecent and immoral. Sadly, it’s also very much in keeping with Freedom Man’s habit of deserting “friends” no longer deemed useful. Whenever this occurs, newspaper columnists rush into print decrying the irreparable damage done to American credibility. Such fears always turn out to be overblown, as they will in this instance.

Yet the issue that cries out for attention is not the danger to which Freedom Man has exposed the Kurds or the damage to American credibility. It’s Freedom Man himself that deserves a fresh look.

If he ever existed, he has long since become a menace, both to America and to others. Indulging the delusions of journalists like Bret Stephens makes it that much more difficult for Americans to see themselves as they actually are and their country as it actually is. In the meantime, the havoc that Freedom Man commits in our name will continue.

Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, will appear in January.