Andrew J. Bacevich / The Boston Globe – 2008-02-25 23:05:51
February 24, 2008) — THE ISSUE that ought to occupy center stage in the 2008 presidential campaign is not US policy toward Iraq but US policy after Iraq. “After” in this context does not mean that Iraq is now receding in America’s rearview mirror; the conflict there will continue for years to come. “After” means that, like it or not, dealing with the war’s consequences will rank near the top of the next president’s agenda.
One such consequence is this: the United States finds itself without a set of viable and morally coherent principles to guide decisions regarding the use of force.
The United States once adhered to principles that were both sound and eminently straightforward. As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, the so-called Vietnam syndrome exercised a restraining influence. Americans saw military power as something to be husbanded. The preference was to use force as a last resort, employed to defend vital interests. Overt aggression qualified as categorically wrong.
After the Cold War, enthusiasm for precision weapons and a brief infatuation with “humanitarian interventionism” eroded those principles. During the 1990s, the use of force, usually on a small scale, became increasingly commonplace. The lessons of Vietnam lost their salience. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which prompted the Bush administration to jettison those lessons in their entirety.
In their place, the administration substituted a breathtakingly ambitious new framework. Through the use of preventive war (the Bush doctrine) the United States set out to transform the greater Middle East (the freedom agenda), thereby liberating the people of the Islamic world and preventing further terrorist attacks. Rather than a last resort, force became a preferred instrument. Given the right motives, aggressive war became justifiable and even necessary.
Two key assumptions underlay this approach. The first was that US troops were unstoppable: once committed into action, US forces could be counted on to deliver a quick, decisive, and economical victory.
The second assumption was that the greater Middle East was ripe for change, with liberal values providing the antidote to the pathologies afflicting the region.
Events have now demolished these assumptions. Except when fighting on its own terms, the United States military has proven itself unable to deliver quick, decisive, and economical victories. Within 18 months of the terrorist attacks, President Bush initiated two major wars. Years later, despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars and the loss of thousands of lives, those wars continue, with no end in sight. The president will bequeath both of them to his successor. Bluntly, the Bush doctrine hasn’t worked as advertised.
Similar problems beset the freedom agenda. Efforts to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan have produced not effective and legitimate governments, but quasi-permanent dependencies. In the West Bank and Gaza, American insistence on free and fair elections delivered power to Hamas. In Lebanon, elections enhanced the standing of Hezbollah. Rather than alleviating pathologies, democracy has accentuated them.
Although the White House may pretend otherwise, the Bush doctrine and the freedom agenda have failed their trials. That failure is definitive. Only the truly demented will imagine that simply trying harder will produce different results – that preventive war against Iran, for example, will hurry that nation down the path toward Western-oriented liberal democracy. The collapse of the Bush doctrine and the freedom agenda leaves a dangerous void.
In the place of defective principles regarding the proper role of force, we now have no principles at all. Nothing in the presidential campaign thus far suggests that any of the candidates is aware of this problem. Regardless of the election’s outcome, however, it will be incumbent upon the next president to replace the Bush doctrine and its corollary.
This will be no easy task. Yet the place to begin is with a candid recognition of just how far Americans have strayed from the path of wisdom and prudence since persuading themselves that the lessons of Vietnam no longer applied.
A first step might be to enshrine a new Iraq syndrome to serve the same purposes today that the Vietnam syndrome did after that failed war, reminding us that power has limits, curbing the reckless impulses of our politicians, warning against those who promise peace while sending young Americans to fight in distant lands.
The Iraq syndrome ought to begin with this dictum: never again. This time we need to mean it.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book “The Limits of Power” will appear later this year.
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