In Taming American Power, which I first mentioned here, Stephen M. Walt treats American primacy as a national asset to be guarded so that it can be used judiciously to promote order in the international system. Self-restraint is one of the virtues that Walt promotes as a means of preserving the United States' influence in the world. This passage (from page 227) describes what might have been the fruits of a more restrained policy with respect to Iraq:
The benefits of self-restraint can be demonstrated by considering how much the United States would have gained had it followed this approach toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Had the Bush administration rejected preventive war in Iraq in March 2003, and chosen instead to continue the UN-mandated inspections process that was then underway, it would have scored a resounding diplomatic victory. The Bush team could have claimed--correctly--that the threat of U.S. military action had forced Saddam Hussein to resume inspections under new and more intrusive procedures. The UN inspectors would have determined that Iraq didn’t have any WMD after all. There was no reason for Bush and Company to rush to war, because Iraq’s decaying military capabilities were already contained and Saddam was incapable of aggressive action as long as the inspectors were on Iraqi soil. If Saddam had balked after a few months, then international support for his ouster would have been much easier to obtain, and in the meantime, the United States would have shown the world that it preferred to use force only as a last resort. This course would have kept Iraq isolated, kept the rest of the world on America’s side, undermined Osama bin Laden’s claim that the United States sought to dominate the Islamic world–and, incidentally, allowed the United States to focus its energies and attention on defeating al Qaeda. Even more important, this policy of “self-restraint” would have avoided war, thereby saving billions of dollars and thousands of lives, and keeping the United States out of the quagmire in which it became engulfed. The Bush team had all these benefits in its hands and squandered them by rushing headlong into war. Instead of demonstrating that U.S. primacy would be used with wisdom and restraint, they gave the rest of the world ample reason to worry about the asymmetry of power in Washington’s hands. Repairing the damage could take decades.
Walt, remember, is a realist and realists have a healthy respect for the role of power in international politics. It is, however, a very different understanding of power and its misuses from the one held by neoconservatives.
Incidentally, having recently finished Taming American Power, I recommend it unequivocally.