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In 1868, a British army led by Sir Robert Napier sailed from India to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) to rescue several English and European hostages from the mentally unstable, sadistic King Theodore. Theodore had become enraged a few years earlier because his letter to Queen Victoria asking for military assistance had been ignored, and so he retaliated by taking the hostages. Napier’s expedition required the building of a port, railroad, and road in order for his army of 13,000 soldiers to march to Theodore’s stronghold Magdala, 400 brutal miles from the coast. After the three-month march, the British met Theodore’s army at Magadala and routed it. The hostages were released, and Theodore committed suicide. Then Napier led his army back to the coast and sailed away, surprising many who believed that rescuing the hostages was a pretext for colonial expansion.
The Abyssinian expedition illustrates the British awareness that an empire must defend not just its material interests, but also its prestige. Insults and injuries to its citizens cannot be tolerated, for rivals and enemies will interpret such forbearance as a weakness to be exploited. The expedition was an expensive, massive undertaking, but one necessary in order to warn the Empire’s potential enemies that England would pay any price to defend its honor and interests. Power is not just about material resources, but also the perceptions of others that power will be used, a perception that works as a force multiplier. As Vergil says in the Aeneid, “They have power because they seem to have power.”
History is filled with examples of how costly it is for a nation to allow its prestige to be damaged, thus weakening its power and inviting aggression. By 1938, Hitler had no respect for the English or the French despite their combined military might, given their failure to respond to Germany’s serial violations of the Versailles settlement over the previous two decades. Thus Hitler’s brilliant manipulation of diplomacy in the Czechoslovakia crisis, when England and France, as Churchill would write later, “presented a front of two over-ripe melons crushed together.” Hitler agreed: a year later, he would respond to England and France’s guarantee of Poland’s security by sneering, “I saw them at Munich. They are little worms.”
Likewise the U.S. paid the price for its loss of prestige following the abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975. As Jimmy Carter publicly announced a “crisis of confidence,” fretted over America’s “recent mistakes” and “recognized limits,” and cut spending on the military, an emboldened Soviet Union went on a geopolitical rampage throughout the Third World. Equally ominous was the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the seizure of the embassy hostages, a grievous affront to our prestige met with toothless sanctions, U.N. resolutions, secret negotiations, and the whole repertoire of excuses to substitute talk for action. A byproduct of this blow to U.S. prestige was the creation of an oil-rich jihadist regime in the heart of the Middle East, one that immediately started creating and supporting terrorist groups that for 30 years have murdered Americans. A series of jihadist attacks followed Iran’s victory over the superpower America, from the 1983 Beirut bombing of the Marine barracks, to the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, none of which were met with a punitive response that would have made clear the overwhelming price to be paid for assaulting America’s interests and citizens. So it was no surprise that Osama bin Laden, convinced that America was a “weak horse” with “foundations of straw,” on September 11, 2001 sent his jihadists to attack the very centers of American power and prestige in Washington D.C. and New York.
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