Author’s Note: press play to hear Neville Chamberlain speaking upon his return from the Munich Conference
A thought occurred to me this morning, as I was digesting news that President Biden has one-upped appointment of an eco-terrorist to lead the Bureau of Land Management by nominating a Soviet educated communist — who claims she “can’t find” her graduate thesis on Marx and Engels — to Comptroller of American Currency. I wondered, off topic and out loud, as I occasionally do on cold fall mornings in my office, if the forthcoming Beijing Olympics might be viewed by future generations as a similar moment to the Munich Olympics of 1936. In ’36 the world was just waking up to the reality of Hitler and the National Socialist party. Within two years the spectacles of the Munich Conference and Krystallnacht followed, and only four years after the games the British would be scrambling to save their Army on the battered shores of Dunkirk.
There is something in the air these days, like the smell of ozone wafting in from a distant thunderstorm, that is difficult to dismiss.
As far as Munich goes, there are some common themes worth exploring. The US policy toward Taiwan hinges on notions of “strategic ambiguity,” which is something different than Chamberlain’s outright appeasement of Hitler’s ambitions, but nevertheless one senses it isn’t quite strong enough to act as a real deterrence to a determined foe. China today is most certainly a determined and capable foe, unimpressed by the remaining vapors of American influence, and it will be interesting to see if and how American policy might change to reflect reality on the ground. It will be even more interesting to see whether or not the United States has the stomach to actually defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression when that day finally comes. If it happened tomorrow I think we would mostly do nothing — pulling the last lynchpin from-out the teetering scaffold of American credibility and reliability.
Not that reality on the ground is a high priority for American strategic or political thinking these days, as the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle should have made clear. One longs for politicians with the wisdom and foresight of Ben Franklin, the raw intelligence of Jefferson, or the sheer tenacity of John Adams. These were careful, competent, and extremely courageous men of character, who risked everything and whose calculations were underwritten by the determination to live and to defeat tyranny at any price. But a study of the modern congressional playbill doesn’t leave much room for confidence we might enjoy that kind of leadership. Instead, we are trapped somewhere between the grabasstick absurdities of Donald Trump and the bizarre perambulating cognitions of Joe Biden, which is a special kind of hell for mere citizens trying to earn a living and raise their children on something other than unbleached cynicism.
I am of the opinion that the third world war is already underway, and that on every judge’s scorecard we are losing. Warfare, like all things, evolves, and it seems likely that the age of gunboat diplomacy and tank battles in North Africa are behind us as our enemies — and we have them — have mastered Clausewitz’s call to attack a nation’s center of gravity. Instead of tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap, we can expect a hybrid approach that leverages clandestine attacks on our economy, technology, information platforms, and confidence in government to overwhelm our ability and collective will to respond.
A nation’s center of gravity, as defined by the Department of Defense (and essentially Clausewitz) is “the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.” For more than two centuries that essential thing for Americans has been an abiding belief in the fundamental strength of our constitution — in spite of our many political differences — and our confidence in free and fair elections. Perhaps nothing has been eroded so quickly — on the heels of Trumpism, an election-cycle marred by violence and hyper-partisan bickering, and a pandemic fully exploited by bureaucrats to cement their grip on intoxicating emergency powers — as our unity and confidence.
It is a cultural wildfire — a corrosive deconstruction fanned by calculating, capable, and canny external forces, exacerbated by a politically compromised fourth estate, and pushed through our public schools and universities by a fanatical leftism — where the focus has turned from preparing students to lead and contribute to their nation’s success toward a relentless ideological struggle session.
Elsewhere, it probably isn’t an accident that — by latest count — some two million migrants have arrived at our southern border at the same time our nation has endured a series of cyber and ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure by shadowy proxies. Could be that’s just coincidence, though as a former detective I’m suspicious of coincidence. What it could also be is asymmetric warfare at its finest and on a massive scale. The utility of that hybrid strategy as a destabilizer is currently embroiling Europe also — where even a continent governed by smugly self-satisfied socialists is now proposing to build border walls to prevent the continuing exploitation of their own largesse. How utterly and ironically neo-conservative.
A good question to ask is who is bankrolling this use of migrants as destabilizing proxies, and an even better question to ask is why? In America, the present administration points to “root causes” on the immigration issue — even as they ignore the “root causes” of virtually everything else, including rampant inflation and exploding gasoline prices. What emerges from that cloud of administrative fecklessness looks more like widespread incompetence than complexity, and in the end the loser will be the same person it always is: the commuting single mother who can’t afford to drive to work, can’t afford a Prius, and where — at any event — she is slowly being replaced by a carbon-neutral machine approved by the scowling work-committees of the Green New Deal.
As America responds weakly, or not at all, to each new development at home and abroad, American self-confidence — and the confidence of our allies — erodes in stride. There is little doubt that the adults who are watching in real-time from the Kremlin or the West Building in Beijing are amused by the childish antics they see on the American political playground. How could they possibly take us seriously? I don’t, and I live here. And the more I look around and chase down the various leads (a lead is a lead is a lead, we used to say in the crime business) the more I am concerned that this present version of us isn’t up to the challenges we are facing and worse, may not recognize what modern combat looks like.
Chamberlain and the cheering throngs who greeted him on the tarmac in London couldn’t recognize it in their day either, but in the end they had some long-term advantages that helped them overcome their initial miscalculations: that famous British stiff upper lip, Churchill, and a powerful cousin and ally in the United States. Today, Europe has no Army, America has no leadership, and our children spend half their time taking “pouty lips” selfies for Instagram. I’d love to believe that we have time to get the ship’s carpenters to work and keep the seawater out. But Charles Bukowski, from some barstool in downtown LA, thought it was just “War All the Time.” I think he was probably right. And I think Chairman Xi and Uncle Vladimir think so too.
And also, nobody loses their graduate thesis. That’s not a thing. It just doesn’t happen.