In November of 1999, then-governor of Texas, George W. Bush, went to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and gave a speech that concluded in part, "let us have an American foreign policy that reflects American character. The modesty of true strength. The humility of real greatness."
The language was incorporated into the 2000 Republican Party Platform.
A generation later, America has certainly mastered the "humility" part — or at least humiliation, as pictures of the Taliban rolling into Kabul attest.
It’s the strength and greatness parts that appear in need of some restoration.
Donald Trump noticed that with his "Make America Great Again" slogan even as he simultaneously planned the Afghanistan exit and vowed to end what he called "the era of endless wars."
It may seem hard to recall now, with one Wall Street Journal columnist describing it as "the most devastating blow to American prestige since the fall of Saigon," another likening it to President Jimmy Carter’s failures in the Iran hostage crisis, and even the New York Times’ Bret Stephens predicting "America’s geopolitical position will be gravely damaged."
But the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 were followed quickly enough by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Even Reagan himself, remembered for restoring American prestige and power, wasn’t immune from Kabul-style routs.
In 1983, suicide truck bomb attacks on a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, killed 241 American marines, sailors, and soldiers. Reagan — under pressure from a Congress that included Senator Biden — ordered a retreat.
A September 1983 New York Times account had quoted Biden complaining about mission creep in the Lebanon deployment.
One senator said "the Administration seems to be implying that the troops should remain until all foreign troops leave the country and the Lebanese Government can exert authority over its entire territory."
Reported The Times: "Senator Biden maintained that these goals could not be achieved and added, 'I think the mission in Beirut is changing in the same incremental way it changed in Southeast Asia.' He said the Administration had yet to answer a central question: 'What are we signing on for?'"
Nearly two generations later, Lebanon remains in ruins, dominated by Iran and Syria at a significant humanitarian cost and posing some security risk to America and our allies.
After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, some saw the American retreat from Beirut as having emboldened the attackers.
What people remember Reagan for, though, isn’t the Beirut retreat but the military buildup and "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin that helped defeat the Soviet Union.
That isn’t only because Reagan and his team were great communicators, though they were.
It’s also because America had no imperial ambition in Lebanon, and because of Reagan’s tax cuts that unleashed American economic growth.
What matters in the end is the big picture.
This should be a consolation for Biden, if not for Lebanon.
No one would mistake the Delaware Democrat for Ronald Reagan, though Biden, at 78, is now older than Reagan ever was as president.
American greatness, though, endures longer than any foreign policy blunder.
It outlasts any president.
The reason the Afghans were swarming the airport and clinging to the wheel-wells of American planes wasn’t only that they feared the murderous onslaught of vengeful Taliban.
It's that a chance to come to America is worth a lot of risk.
Even an America that betrays its foreign allies, misjudges the terrain in Kabul, retreats from Saigon, fails at a rescue attempt of the Iranian hostages, flees under fire in Lebanon — even that America, America at its worst, is still, for freedom, democracy, economic opportunity, and rule of law better than anywhere else on planet Earth.
It’s the greatness not of presidential decisionmaking but of institutions and individuals, families and traditions — the Constitution, jurors and judges who serve with integrity, charities that resettle refugees, investors and entrepreneurs and Olympic gold medalists and Little League coaches and grandparents and church-run food banks and the Pfizer and Moderna scientists.
All of this is no solace to Afghan women being raped.
It is, alas, no help to Afghan troops who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops against the Taliban and al Qaida; those troops now are abandoned and may wind up in mass graves.
It is, though, something for Americans to hold onto now along with the humility —strength and greatness.
They have no guarantee of lasting forever, but for nearly 250 years they have been enough to withstand even the worst blunders of politicians.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of "JFK, Conservative." Read Ira Stoll's Reports — More Here.
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