27 June 2003

Lessons for US foreign and defence policy

Over the years I've learnt to respect the analyses coming out of the Annapolis-based Center for Public Justice. The following is a commentary written by Steven M. Meyer, professor at the National Defence University. The views expressed are his own.

Lessons From Iraq

Foreign military intervention has been a staple of American history from the beginning. But arguably, the war against Iraq has taught us more about U.S. involvement overseas than any other engagement since the end of the Cold War. There are, I think, five major lessons.

First, overwhelming military power counts, even if it is not used intelligently in the context of today's rapidly changing international system. Yet the use of such awful military power is deceptive because it can mask the failure of American diplomatic and economic power. Force has become Washington's default instrument and it can work for a while. But it has already begun to generate counter-force, not only lethal asymmetric responses, but also non-lethal (mostly economic and diplomatic) responses as well.

Second, there is no necessary correlation between intelligence and policy. Policymakers are free to use--or abuse--intelligence as they see fit and frequently intelligence has been ignored, slanted, or rejected in pursuit of policy that is high on an administration's agenda. An a priori decision was made to go to war against Iraq, and the decision was then justified through intelligence. In particular, when the accusations that Saddam had large stores of weapons of mass destruction and well-established links to al Qaeda proved unfounded--or of little significance--the administration moved quite easily to Saddam's brutality as the justification for war.

Third, the Iraq war has all but put the coup de grace to our traditional relationship with Europe and undercut European unification. To be sure, despite Washington's best efforts, our NATO-centric Cold-War relationship with Europe has been unraveling for more than a decade. However, the fact that support for and opposition to the war did not conform to the old division between NATO- and Warsaw-Pact countries represents more than a temporary rift. Rather, it exemplifies a more fundamental change, one that betrays a growing divergence of interests with much of "old Europe" and a greater synonymy of interests with much of Eastern Europe. The convergence of American and East European interests might be short lived, however, as the East Europeans discover that their burgeoning economic relationship with Western Europe is considerably more important than their quasi-security relationship with Washington.

Fourth, sustaining the American imperium is much more difficult than prosecuting war against weak opponents. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. military action has been decisive in the Gulf War, twice in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and now most importantly in Iraq. But converting traditional and semi-traditional societies to our vision of postmodern, multi-ethnic, secular, economically mature Western-style democracies is infinitely more difficult to achieve because the cultural and institutional moorings of political systems usually change slowly over time. The desired outcomes have not been fully attained in any of the countries defeated by U.S. military force, and Iraq is now the most chaotic and dangerous of them all. In effect, we have told these societies that they may not develop gradually as we did, that they must follow what we say, not what we did.

Fifth, Iraq, more than any other post-Cold War case, puts us at a crossroads about how we will interact with the rest of the world--with traditional societies in the Middle East as well as "advanced" societies in Europe -- and whether the relationship between policymaking and intelligence will be put on a new basis. For all other nations, Iraq highlights the challenge they face of deciding whether to balance against, or to fall into step with, the growing American empire.

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