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Opinion | Pearl Harbor and the Capacity for Surprise

Third resemblance: The direct targets of their aggression are relatively weak.

Taiwan has plans to boost its military budget but now spends barely 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Ukraine has been worn down by years of low-grade conflict with Russian-backed separatists, to say nothing of the corruption and incompetence that has typified its 30 years of independence. Iran has taken advantage of the chaos that followed the Arab Spring and America’s retreat from the Middle East to arm and embolden proxies from Hamas to Hezbollah to the Houthis.

Fourth resemblance: The U.S. — like Britain, France and America in the 1930s — is an ambivalent, wounded and inwardly focused power, unsure as to whether it wants to remain the guarantor of the safety of threatened nations.

In 1935, just before Italy invaded Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then called), the British weekly Punch mocked the West’s weak response in the face of dictatorial aggression with a satirical poem:

We don’t want you to fight,
But, by jingo if you do,
We shall probably issue a joint memorandum
Suggesting a mild disapproval of you.

Compare this to some of the ideas now being adopted or entertained for punishing our adversaries. With China, America will send athletes, but not diplomats, to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. With Russia, the Biden administration is considering “blocking Russian oligarchs from using Visa and Mastercard credit cards,” according to The Times. And with Iran, the administration warns that it is prepared to use “other tools” if diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear programs fails — a warning that would sound more ominous if it hadn’t been American diplomatic boilerplate for nearly two decades.

Fifth resemblance: The balance of military power is increasingly shifting against the West.

The United States may still have the world’s most powerful and technologically sophisticated military, much as Britain had the largest navy and France a huge army before World War II. But the U.S. would be hard-pressed to bring decisive power to bear against China in a war for Taiwan, which China would try to win quickly while holding America’s heartland at risk with its growing nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon has also made the mistake of concentrating firepower in a small number of expensive and vulnerable platforms, such as aircraft carriers, rather than distributing power in vast numbers of “good enough” platforms.

In other words, the American military has in some ways itself become one large Pearl Harbor — a magnificent row of battleships of imposing size but dubious utility, complacently anchored in a port we imagined was secure.

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