Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Resilience of Power: The Strategic Implications of Iraq

Military Convoy Iraq

This entry is a follow-up to my Sunday post, "The Lessons of Iraq."

In that essay
Jules Crittenden noted that "Iraq has become the central battlefield in the 21st century's Islamic war..."

Indeed it has, and while challenges continue, our sacrifices are being repaid, as
President Bush noted today.

The president also acknowledged the continuing protests against the war. It seems that no degree of military and political progress will deter war opponents from their endless calls for unconditional surrender. The war's routinely disparaged as a disaster, precisely when analysts have identified the long-term positive strategic externalities of our deployment.

Walter Russell Mead, writing in the new American Interest, suggests that the military turnaround in Iraq over the last 15 months demonstrates the phenomenal resilence of American power, with far reaching implications:

First, the prestige of the American military could be significantly enhanced, both at home and abroad. For a liberal democracy to carry out a successful counterinsurgency campaign under a media spotlight is difficult under any circumstances. Many critics of the Iraq war effort argued consistently that such a victory was impossible, and that therefore the only possible course was to stage an American withdrawal in the least humiliating and disruptive way possible. Others, at home and abroad, argued that American military power reflected technological superiority and large budgets, but that both the American military and American society lacked the will and the ability to prevail in tough ground combat.

Defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents, while persuading both Sunni and Shi‘a militias in Iraq to pursue their goals through non-military channels, would be a substantial and striking victory in the face of this simple-minded conventional thinking. The American military would emerge from Iraq tempered and tested rather than broken, with a demonstrated capability at counterinsurgency in the Middle East. This could end up a significant factor in international affairs, because it could suggest that the approach of countering American military strength by concentrating on asymmetric warfare might not be quite as promising as some had hoped....

When it comes to the Middle East, the one thing we know we won’t see is a peaceful, happy region where American leadership is trusted and popular. The confrontation with Iran remains explosively dangerous....

But victory, however qualified, will help in a region where the United States will continue to have vital interests in play. Some of these consequences have already been felt. There is some significant polling evidence that, despite constant and even growing dislike of the United States, support for suicide bombing and other terror tactics has fallen in the Arab world in recent years. Al-Jazeera footage of bombs going off in Iraqi markets has not inspired a generation to join al-Qaeda; it has filled far more people with loathing and horror at the gruesome consequences of this form of war. The victims are Arabs, not Americans or Israelis. As the Arab world has watched the insurgency in Iraq with unprecedented immediacy, traditional Arab and Islamic teachings against anarchy and rebellion look more sensible than ever.

Defeat for the insurgents will only strengthen this view. Al-Qaeda will be seen, correctly, as having employed unacceptable tactics and imposed unendurable suffering in Iraq, while achieving nothing. This conspicuous and corrosive failure will not only weaken the appeal of jihadi extremists; it will also strengthen the claims of traditional, sensible religious teachers to speak for the core values of Islamic religion and civilization.

It is likely, too, that a perceived American victory in Iraq, however modest, would contribute to a general reconsideration of American power. Before 9/11, many observers in the United States and abroad significantly overestimated America’s true position in the world. Americans particularly tended to exaggerate America’s global influence and popularity. After 9/11, and even more, after the bungled move into Iraq, the floundering failure of the American occupation, and the country’s descent into chaos, world opinion overcorrected. Widely considered a colossus that could not be stopped in 2000, America came to be seen by 2007 as a badly governed, near-bankrupt country in rapid and irreversible decline.

Having overshot in both directions, the world may now move toward a more sustainable and accurate view of American power and its world role. The United States is likely to remain the world’s largest economy and, in both political and military terms, its most important state for some time to come. Rivals and potential rivals all face constraints and obstacles even more daunting. This re-assessment of the American prospect would likely come regardless of developments in Iraq, but should events there continue to move favorably, many will be struck by the resilience of American power.

See also, Reuel Marc Gerecht, "A New Middle East, After All: What George W. Bush Hath Wrought."

Photo Credit: New York Times