Sometimes better, sometimes worse, we are not what we were. More than two decades ago, Charles Krauthammer received a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. That was then, when I read and admired his columns in The New Republic. This is now, when I read his columns in the local paper. As Hamlet might say of Krauthammer then and now, as he says of the comparison between Hamlet, Sr., and Claudius, “what a falling-off was there.”
Case in point, a recent column attacking Obama for missing the point on U.S.-Russian diplomacy. Crucial to Krauthammer’s entire argument is his view of the strategic balance of offensive and defensive missile capabilities, and what it means for American influence in our relations with an increasingly testy Russia.
According to Krauthammer, by linking offensive and defensive nuclear weapons, Obama gave away a huge strategic advantage enjoyed by the United States. He claims that we have a decisive “technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot.”
The claim is nonsense, dangerous nonsense. After a long string of test failures, the U.S has a few successes in shooting down test missiles launched at a time and on a course known to our missile defenses. It is mendacity driven by anti-Obama madness to declare that we can “reliably” destroy incoming missiles launched at a time and from a place chosen by an enemy.
Worse, the claim rests on the idea that hostilities or, in the service of diplomacy, the threat of hostilities between Russia and the United States is likely to involve the resort to nuclear weapons. This Cold War thinking may have seemed or even been appropriate at the time when his writings won his Pulitzer, but such thinking makes no sense in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Worst of all, Krauthammer’s mistaken belief in American invincibility encourages reckless diplomacy. We have seen over and over since 1945 that a belief that America’s military superiority can muscle our way to our foreign policy objectives is mistaken. Indeed, it appears that the more we rely upon our military strength, even when the disparity between ours and our enemy’s is large, the greater the difficulty in achieving our objectives. If the day of white male conservative macho as the driving force of American diplomacy is not over—though there is a place for military strength as an adjunct to diplomacy—we cannot expect to deal effectively with our friends or our enemies.