America, abroad

August 26, 2007

It's time to think about American conduct in the world after Iraq. The policies of the Bush administration have failed, dramatically, and in doing so they have pointed up weaknesses and fallacies in the American approach to foreign affairs - many of which have roots that go back through several administrations. Iraq has been a disaster, but also a potentially useful lesson in the limits to American power.

A different United States will emerge from the war in Iraq - and we're not looking ahead to some hypothetical, distant moment when peace will spread throughout that afflicted country and democracy will take hold, but trying to suggest what course the United States should follow once the inevitable drawdown of American troops there begins.

The main point, as we see it, is that the technologically overwhelming might of the U.S. military is of diminishing value in promoting American interests around the world and, ultimately, in protecting Americans at home.

Instead, policymakers and the public alike should keep in mind:

Goals must reflect the available means.

Diplomacy is the art of persuading others to do what you want them to do. It is not a sign of weakness.

Threats to this country will not take shape as conventional wars. That makes a conventional military less important.

Islamist jihadists seek to destabilize existing states. The United States should stop helping them achieve their objective.

The United States must start trying to find a way out of the oil patch.


Matching means to objectives sounds elementary, but Iraq is evidence of how easy it is to go wrong. President Bush's objective, by his own reckoning, was to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and advance the cause of freedom. One could hardly object to that, but the obvious shortcoming is that the means he chose - the U.S. invasion of Iraq - was woefully unsuited to the larger task.

The United States launched that war on faith, in the expectation that magical things would follow, much as they had in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the means to build free-market democracies existed within the former Soviet Bloc countries; they didn't in Iraq. Poland, the Czech Republic and the others found their own way out of communism, encumbered as they sometimes were by well-meaning American interference. In Iraq, the U.S. supplied the means, trying to build a liberal democracy with cruise missiles and 140,000 soldiers and an occupation authority that had faith in the rightness of everything it did.

The result was war and failure.

Being sure of means before setting objectives requires a reality-based view of the world, and a willingness to hear out skeptics.


One way to multiply the means available is to employ those of others. That entails the use of persuasion and alliance-building, the careful search for vulnerabilities in potential allies as well as foes, and the ability to give in order to get. In other words, diplomacy.

To hem in Iran, for instance, the Saudis might be induced to get the attention of their European customers so as to persuade them to restrict Iran's access to the international banking system - to use an example cited recently by the diplomat Dennis Ross. The world's a complicated place, with all sorts of levers in it. The United States shouldn't be shy about finding ways to use them.

To the Bush administration, unfortunately, the idea of talking to foes (and even friends, sometimes) seems to be viewed as an unmanly thing to do. We suspect that what lies behind this is the conviction that those wily foreigners will get the better of the straight-talking Americans if they even agree to sit down together. But the United States has a history of successful diplomats, from Benjamin Franklin to George C. Marshall (of the Marshall Plan); a country that can boast of producing the ablest lawyers in the world shouldn't be afraid of the bargaining table.


Probably the last conventional war was the one between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, back in 1982. It may be the last conventional war ever. Yugoslavia is more typical of modern conflict - and Chechnya and Congo and Afghanistan and Israel's war in Lebanon and, of course, Iraq. Yet the U.S. maintains a huge conventional fighting force. In many ways, its time has passed.

Of course, a certain level of conventional ability is obligatory. But a major conventional war is unlikely. Future administrations with even a modest amount of expertise should be able to ward off armed conflicts with Russia or China as disputes with those countries inevitably arise. North Korea is perhaps the only other nation that might attempt to launch an old-fashioned, battlefield war, across the border with South Korea, but even then such a conflict would quickly go, as the jargon would have it, asymmetric.

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