October 9, 2006

Iraq war demonstrates limits of U.S. power

We often hear it said that America is the most powerful country in the world, the foremost superpower on the international scene. Supporters and critics alike of American foreign-policy decisions generally agree on this point. Whether America is “the indispensable nation” and a force for human liberty or an arrogant empire with imperialist leanings, there is little doubt that in some sense it has more raw power than any other state.

But what does it really mean to say that America is the world’s most powerful nation if we are losing the war in Iraq, a war we launched on our own terms and at our own convenience? The Bush administration has consistently expressed its desire to transform Iraq into a functioning liberal democracy that could serve as a model of freedom in the Middle East. If we take this goal as our criterion, then there can be no doubt that we have utterly failed in Iraq. The war is lost, and the tide won’t be turning anytime soon.

This sad fact should provoke a great deal of self-reflection on the part of American policymakers. Rather than buy wholesale into optimistic and hawkish accounts of America’s “exceptionalism,” its superior warmaking ability, and its supposed moral authority, policymakers should take a fresh look at both the promise and the limits of American power in international affairs.

When we make a claim about American power, we must be specific. Power to influence what issues and change which global realities? Power to influence whom and change whose behavior?

The history of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq throws these issues into startling clarity. America’s ability to project raw military might across the globe meant that we could invade a landlocked country in the Middle East with a rapid ground campaign and “shock and awe” bombing campaign, destroying its government in a matter of days.

The American military establishment is very good at waging war against governments, and it is getting better at waging war against terrorists and insurgents. But we make poor social planners and nation builders. We have found it very difficult to win the “hearts and minds” of the nations we occupy. We have had considerable trouble convincing average Iraqis to reject sectarian militias and insurgency and throw their lot in with the dysfunctional, American-supported “unity” government.

That is why, despite its overwhelming military superiority, America has lost the war in Iraq. Our failure in Iraq has nothing to do with fading American “willpower” or “lack of moral clarity,” as some critics whine. Rather, the failure stems from an idealistic, hubristic misunderstanding of American power and a stubborn refusal to learn the lessons of history. For, as the sad tales of asymmetric wars in Algeria, Vietnam, and Afghanistan show all too clearly, the underdog often does win. And when it does, the shamed, overreaching superpower that launched the war must go home with its tail between its legs, having caused the loss of innumerable lives and resources.

The lessons of the Iraq war have dealt a shattering blow to the illusion of America as a country that can throw its weight around carelessly and get its way even if everyone else disagrees. If there is a silver lining to the Iraq tragedy, let us hope it is this: In the future, our leaders might be more candid in their assessment of threats to American security and less starry-eyed and optimistic in their decisions about whether to go to war.