Friday, June 09, 2006

Worst US War Ever?

One of the frustrating things about blogging is that every once in a while, someone says something breathtakingly stupid, but you forget who exactly said what exactly, so you can't respond properly by finding the post and excoriating them. That said, one of the silliest things I saw in the run-up to the Iraq war was a claim that, however it turned out, the war was unlikely to be a long-term drain on the United States.

The example of Vietnam was cited, which is now basically a mini-China: authoritarian but happily exporting wares to the US throught a corrupt economy. If Vietnam and the US can be friends, the logic went, then certainly Iraq and the US can be, with the passage of time. It was memorably summed up with the phrase (from memory) "the biggest internation dispute between us now involves shrimp", referring to a trade dispute between the US and Vietnam.

I think this was a pretty vain hope from the beginning. Vietnam, as devastating as it was to the American psyche, was a relatively trivial loss (except for the dead, of course.) The Cold War was not decisively upset in favour of either side. The Soviets gained an American funded naval base, but not much else. The Chinese, for their part, gained a staunch ally in worker's solidarity... who they promptly attacked. In short, Vietnam wasn't a blow to the US because the stakes were relatively small, despite the Domino Theory.

Iraq is another matter entirely. Here is a oil-rich nation that will almost certainly be taken over by virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli theocrats along the Iranian model. The other outcomes, believe it or not, are worse. We're likely to see the price of oil climb further as this war drags on, and further enrich countries like Iran and Russia. And the damage to the US military may take a decade to repair. The damage to US credibility may very well be permanent.

In short, I think the fallout from Iraq may very well be a permanent re-ordering of the international sphere. So does Helena Cobban in Salon:
So as the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, there may be some developments in international politics that will strengthen global stability. The U.S. may lose the ability it has had for so long to block any resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute that does not conform to Israel's wishes. The U.S. and the other world powers may finally get serious about trying to stabilize Afghanistan (and other long-neglected parts of the world like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Darfur), rather than leaving them to fester and thus incubate new al-Qaidas or other, as-yet-unseen networks of stakeless international troublemakers. And crucially, the gross power imbalance between the U.S.'s 300 million people and the 6 billion humans who are not U.S. citizens may finally shift toward a more egalitarian, and therefore more just and stable, position. But alongside these possible "gains" from the point of view of building a more just world, we also need to tally up the losses inflicted by the whole brutal Bush project in Iraq: primarily, the massive losses inflicted on Iraq's people, but also the losses of American lives and treasure.

I realize there are many Americans who are not as ready as I am to welcome the prospect of a diminishment (or, as I would say, a rectification) of the disproportionate amount of power our nation has been able to wield in world affairs over the past 60 years. Many Americans today -- like many British or French citizens 80 years ago -- think it is somehow "natural" that their nation intervene in the doings of other nations around the world and act as the crucial arbiter in international affairs. (And yes, throughout history nearly all such interventions have always come dressed in "salvationist" garb: Very few nations ever knowingly undertake a war or any other foreign intervention that its people clearly understand to be unjust at the time. If such understanding comes at all, it does so only later.)
Richard Holbrooke, meanwhile, thinks Iraq is going to consume American politics for at least another decade:
What Holbrooke argued was this: President Bush has already expressly acknowledged -- even affirmed -- that Iraq will be a problem he will hand off to his successor. Holbrooke then very carefully, and ominously, took us through the richochet-like sequence of consequences: the successor inherits Iraq and is bedeviled by it starting in 2009; Iraq becomes not a but the issue during the successor's reelection campaign in 2012; Iraq skews domestic and foreign policy during the successor's lame-duck term; Iraq continues to entrap the candidates running for President in 2016.
Frankly, I think this is optimistic - the US will need to withdraw from Iraq before then. But the point is clear - we're witnessing a diminishment of American power and authority (not the same thing, obviously) very much unlike the American defeat in Vietnam.

1 comment:

wonderdog said...

I'm not sure how pleased I really am at the notion of lost American hegemony, as they still possess two very dangerous things: a desire for a new American century, and a whole pile of nukes.