Monday, August 15, 2005

The Consequences of Failure

The Iraqis are having difficulty overcoming their differences. The deadline for producing a new constitution passed today without a completed draft. The New York Times described the situation this way:

The Iraqi political process descended toward paralysis on Monday, when leaders failed to meet the deadline for completing the new constitution and voted to give themselves another week to resolve fundamental disagreements over the future and identity of this fractious land.

Several of the leaders said the disagreements, revolving around Islam, oil and the distribution of political power, grew sharper and more numerous as the day dragged on. Some said they were pessimistic that such vast differences could be resolved at all, much less in seven days.

"The differences are huge, and there is not enough determination from the political leaders to solve the problems," said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni leader in the negotiations. "Almost 50 percent of the constitution is not finished yet."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported the following on Saturday:

The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad.

The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say.

"What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground," said a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion. "We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning."

What would be the implications of a four-year-long (at a minimum) military operation that failed to pacify Iraq and establish a stable democracy? It is an important question not so much for the Bush Administration, which is already running out of the time and political capital necessary to reshape the world according to its neoconservative vision, as for future administrations that will have different visions but will nonetheless be saddled with the legacy of Bush's failures.

Comparisons with Vietnam now seem inescapable. Frank Rich yesterday compared the percentage of Americans who approve George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War at present (34 percent) with the percentage who approved Lyndon Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War in March 1968 (32 percent). In both instances, the United States military seemed incapable of countering a determined insurgency. But there are some striking differences between Iraq and Vietnam. The technological gap between the United States and its adversary is even greater today than it was in 1968. Today the United States accounts for half of all the world’s military spending. There was a military rival in the 1960s (the Soviet Union) and many other states, including the People’s Republic of China, that were playing in the same league. North Vietnam had the support of America's biggest military rivals. No one today is making a case that the military situation in Iraq would be significantly different if only we could stop the flow of supplies into the country from outside. Clearly there are sources of outside support for the Iraqi insurgency, but none that can make a significant difference against a military force that has no rivals on earth.

Vietnam proved that military superiority is no guarantee of victory; Iraq seems to be proving that overwhelming military superiority is no guarantee of victory. Consequently, we seem destined to go through another period in which our political leadership and, perhaps more importantly, our military leadership will question the utility of military force. At the same time, America's adversaries will be confirmed in their belief that asymmetric warfare--smart, low-tech forms of terrorism or guerilla warfare--can work.

Questioning the utility of force is not a bad thing when neocons are in power dreaming of new ways to expand the American empire. It is a bad thing, however, when those with a more enlightened view of great power responsibility are at the helm.

What will be largely forgotten after the neocons depart the scene are the lessons of the brief interwar period--between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Global War on Terror--when we learned that the judicious application of military force could in fact save lives and establish some measure of stability in failed states and in those states determined to fail. UN intervention--supported by the United States up until the October 1993 battle in Mogadishu--saved tens of thousands of lives in Somalia. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the under-sized UN force in Rwanda, believes that intervention there in 1994 could have prevented the slaughter of 800,000 to a million people. President Clinton's apology to the Rwandans later in the decade, however problematic it may have been, indicates that he, too, believed intervention could have prevented genocide. And in 1999, military intervention in Kosovo probably did avert a genocide.

It is good that the doctrine of preventive war will soon be thrown on the scrap pile. It is not so good that other, more benign, ideas about the use of military force may end up in the same place.