Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Illusion of Power

Arthur Silber has an excellent series of posts on the possibly-impending, definitely disastrous attack on Iran. Particularly this one, in which he points out the American folly in Vietnam and Iraq and the similarities between the two. Specifically, Silber uses Barbara Tuchman's framework of "folly":
This book is concerned with the last in a specific manifestation; that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.

To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight. This is important, because all policy is determined by the mores of its age.... Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.
Both Vietnam and Iraq meet these criteria in spades. Digby, in response to Silber's essays writes:
The Republicans clung to their delusions for more than a quarter of a century believing that the Vietnam war was lost because it was sabotaged by the civilian leadership and the fecklessness of the American public. They nurtured their resentment through almost three decades, unappeased even by the fall of the Soviet Union. They, and many Democrats as well, never questioned their assumptions about the "illusion of American omnipotence" and they never understood that "problems and conflicts exist among other peoples that are not soluble by the application of American force or American techniques of even American goodwill." In fact, they carefully nurtured all those fancies and when they finally gained the power and opportunity, they immediately set about trying to prove their point --- again. The results are as predictable and as bad they were the first time.
We on the left might try and blame to Republicans for this, but the fact is that America as a country never rejected the comfortable illusion of it's own omnipotence. I've had my American friends and family tell me straight-faced that Vietnam wasn't "lost" because America just gave up, or because America wasn't invaded, or whatever. But if anecdotes aren't enough to convince people, how about some polling data? Last November, I wrote about a poll which reported the following:
Question: In the future, should U.S. policies try to keep it so America is the only military superpower, or would it be acceptable if China, another country or the European Union became as militarily powerful as the U.S.?

US Should be only superpower:

News Media: 44%
Foreign Affairs: 54%
Security: 46%
State/Local Government: 63%
Academic/Think Tanks: 34%
Religious Leaders: 34%
Scientists/Engineers: 22%
Military: 57%
General Public: 50%
This poll terrified me then, and it still terrifies me. The numbers you see are basically the level of approval broken down by various demographics, so you can see that almost 2/3 of local and state government officials believe that the US should commit to doing the impossible. Similarly, 1/3 of academics and religious leaders also believe that the US should commit to doing the impossible. Because that's what this poll is asking, in case you'd missed it - the US is as likely to remain the lone superpower in this century as I am to sprout wings and fly. The United States simply cannot maintain preponderant military power forever. Hell, a pessimistic reading of Iraq would say that the US isn't a superpower now.

And this is why American politics will never be able to admit that the entire notion of the Iraq war was morally and pragmatically wrong - not because the facts don't justifty it, but because the American political system is incapable of admitting that there are limits to US power. Which is why the Democrats are likely to be blamed when the US is finally evicted from Iraq. The idea that Howard Dean is responsible for the defeat of the 3rd Infantry Division is as ridiculous as the urban legend that Vietnam vets were spat on when they got home. Nevertheless, the urban legend persists. Similarly, the American electorate will demand that someone - anyone - be blamed for the defeat in Iraq. This is certainly going to include the current administration, but I don't believe that it will stop there. The search for scapegoats will, like it did after Vietnam, include the civilians who rationally saw that the war was unwinnable and said so publicly. This isn't really a prediction, after all - it's already happening.

My bet? In 20 years, unless the American public wakes up in some fantastic way, Howard Dean is likely to be remembered as another Hanoi Jane.

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