America Has a Samson Problem
Our confrontation with Iran is part of a larger overconfidence in our military to solve all the world's problems.
Critics of the Soleimani assassination point out that it was an action devoid of strategic purpose. They are correct to do so. Yet let’s not blame Donald Trump and his ever-changing cast of senior advisers for having strayed off the path of good sense. The United States lost its way decades ago when members of the policy elite succumbed to an infatuation with military power and thereby lost their strategic bearings.
The current crisis with Iran brings into focus something that ought to have long ago attracted attention: this country has a Samson problem. The United States has become a 21st-century equivalent of the tragic figure from the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible: strong, vain, and doomed (although we must hope our nation does not share Samson’s ultimate fate).
Most people are familiar with at least the outlines of the biblical Samson story: a mighty warrior who slays the enemies of the Israelites in great numbers using the jawbone of an ass among other weapons. Sadly, after the captivating Delilah seduces Samson into revealing the secret of his extraordinary strength—his unshorn hair—he ends up blind, in chains, and held captive in the temple of the Philistines. Samson asks the Lord to restore his strength. The King James Bible explains what happens next: “And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.” It was a huge bloodletting, and among the victims was the hero himself.
It’s a dramatic story, made for the movies. The 1949 Technicolor version, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, remains a camp classic of the sandal-and-togas genre. But whether in the original text or on celluloid, the denouement does not qualify as a happy one. Samson was a fool and his own worst enemy. Something of the same can be said of the United States in recent decades.
As the recently concluded war scare with Iran was unfolding, for example, President Trump took it upon himself to assure his nervous fellow citizens as to the matchless strength of America’s armed forces. “So far, so good!” he tweeted, more than slightly prematurely. “We have the most powerful and well-equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”
I confess that it’s those exclamation points that leave me most uneasy. They suggest a manic personality oblivious to the seriousness of the moment. Can you imagine Kennedy in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis releasing a comparable statement?
Although not without his faults, Kennedy understood how quickly a position of apparent strength can dissipate. Our current commander-in-chief possesses no such appreciation. Trump’s confidence in the U.S. military, expressed with his trademark bluster and bravado, seemingly knows no bounds. And although on this occasion the president and his counterparts in Tehran found a way to avoid pulling down the temple on all of us, his performance did not inspire confidence. We must hope that in the future he’s confronted with few comparable crises. There’s no saying when his luck (and ours) might run out.
Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that the assassination of General Soleimani was only the most recent in a long series of actions in which confidence in America’s military has underwritten rash decisions devoid of strategic common sense. Post-Cold War Washington specializes in rashness. Indeed, in comparison with George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Barack Obama, who greenlighted the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, Trump comes across as a small-stakes gambler.
The larger problem to which Trump calls our attention is the militarism that pervades the American political class—the conviction that accumulating and putting to use military power expresses the essence of so-called American global leadership. That notion is dead wrong and has been the source of endless mischief.
Congress is considering measures that will constrain Trump from any further use of force targeting Iran, hoping thereby to avoid an all-out war. This is all to the good. But the larger requirement is for our political establishment generally to wean itself off of its infatuation with military power. Only then can we restore a measure of self-restraint to America’s national security policy.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory,is just out.