After Captain America
Three years ago, President George W Bush said he would soon be “quacking like a duck” as his administration entered its twilight years. Thanks to the Iraq war and a general American weariness with eight years of conservative domination, Bush’s lame duck period has begun earlier than he expected.
The world is already speculating what sort of foreign policy a post-Bush administration will pursue. The expectation — to use a phrase by the elder President Bush — is a “kinder, gentler” United States. That may prove the stuff of fantasy. What does seem marked for the trash can is attempts to push the Arab world into a liberal democratic era through unilateral force.
Yet, the threat of al-Qaeda and nuclear rogues like Iran and North Korea will remain. No one can compromise on Osama bin Laden. Even the Democratic presidential candidates are as one in their belief that Iran must not get the atom bomb. How will the next White House handle these problems?
The comic book superhero Captain America may provide a clue. His assassination last month was a national debating point in the US, inspiring articles by the New York Times and op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. With reason: few pen-and-ink characters have so closely mirrored the shifting moods of their country. As comics artist Brian Michael Bendis said, “If the country is angry, he gets angry. If the country is sad, he gets sad… He doesn’t represent a flag, but a collective emotion.”
The first Captain America comic book came out in 1941 and had a picture of him bashing Adolf Hitler on its cover. This was what US historian Studs Terkel called “the Good War,” the conflict where no American had any doubts about enemy, cause and aftermath. World War II shaped the character of Captain America, as it did Americans of that generation. It also made him ambivalent about the political and ethical greyness of the years that followed.
Despite being handled by a dozen writers over five decades, Captain America proved a remarkably consistent character: patriotic but individualistic, a fighter but one with clear principles. His readers responded. “The popularity of the character has increased during points in America where there has been a large political or social rift in the country,” said Marvel Comics editor in chief, Joe Quesada.During the Watergate years, Captain America gave up shield and costume in disgust. He took them up again, but only after concluding he represented American principles rather than the US State. In the multicultural 1980s, he had a Black superhero as a partner, a Jewish lover and a gay best friend. When the storyline has him being told by an official commission to sign up as a US government employee, Captain America promptly hangs up his shield again.
Even his assassination reflected contemporary events. The story that led to his death was about Washington ordering all superheroes to register, the ultimate goal being to bring them under official regulation. Captain America leads a rebellion against the law. He is eventually arrested and then gunned down as he leaves court. The struggle, said one commentator, “parallels the debates over the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, the Bush domestic surveillance program and other controversial programs in the post-September 11 world.”
Marvel Comics says the original Captain America — a New York Irish-American art student called Steve Rogers — won’t be coming back. Someone else will don the blue, white and red costume.
The small but intense world of comic book fans is abuzz with theories about who will be the new Captain America. The two frontrunners are other superheroes: the Punisher and Winter Soldier. These are interesting choices because their criminal-catching methods are the antithesis of Captain America’s clean-cut “knock down and arrest” style. Both are revenge-driven, prone to killing bad guys with long-range rifles and having little to do with the police.
If the new Captain America proves to have as good a measure of the national pulse as the old one, the world should brace for a US foreign policy that will be low profile and limited, but still quite lethal. In other words, carrying out foreign policy goals by tossing the entire US army into the game is finished. The new focus is likely to be on sanction-edged diplomacy, on the use of missile strikes and covert military operations. The post-Bush era will be about pursuing a similar tough foreign policy, but with less blunt instruments.
That means putting aside world-changing dreams. Said an advisor to Democratic candidate Barack Obama, “We will live with the present Middle Eastern political structure for now. The US doesn’t have the stomach for that kind of stuff anymore.” It also means using proxies to do your deeds.
In a recent re-evaluation of US strategy, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued Washington should “minimise the US role in every possible way; let local leaders, voices, actors play a maximum role from the start”.
The original rock-jawed Captain America was an instinctive libertarian, proud of his nation but wary of his government. As he once told a US army officer, “I’m loyal to nothing, general… except the Dream.” He also had an image of integrity. “He was the one true decent guy in the Marvel universe,” said one of his writers, JM Dematteis.
His replacement seems set to be morally much more ambiguous. Marvel Comics has yet to reveal the character of the new Captain America. “We’ll be exploring what Captain America the icon means, whether the legacy should be carried on,” says publisher Dan Buckley.
The same murkiness can be expected of the US in the coming year. Expect a period of speaking quietly but carrying a big sniper scope. Iraq will prove humiliating, but the US has suffered far less in personnel and dollars than people realise. Diplomatic historian Robert Kagan, who noted the US voted in Ronald Reagan only five years after the Vietnam War ended, is among those who says the idea of the US holstering its guns or its democratic imperialism for more than a few years is a fantasy.
It’s fitting then that Captain America died at the onset of an era he would have not understood. As he once mused in the 1970s, “I’m like a dinosaur in the Cro-Magnon age! An anachronism who’s outlived his time!”
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is Bernard Schwartz Fellow, Asia Society, New York City
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