dilemma the US has had for a half-century is that the priorities
it must impose on its budget and its imperial plans have never guided
its actual behavior and action. It has always believed, as well
it should, that Europe and its control would determine the future
of world power. But it has fought in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq – the
so-called "Third World" in general – where the stakes of
power were much smaller.
priorities were specific, focused on individual nations, but they
also set the United States the task of guiding or controlling the
entire world – which is a very big place and has proven time and
again to be far beyond American resources and imperial power. In
most of those places in the Third World where the US massively employed
its power directly it has lost, and its military might has been
ineffective. The US’s local proxies have been corrupt and venal
in most nations where it has relied upon them. The cost, both in
financial terms and in the eventual alienation of the American public,
has been monumental.
developed strategic airpower and nuclear weapons with the USSR as
its primary target, and equipped itself to fight a massive land
war in Eastern Europe. Arms makers much preferred this expensive
approach, and they remain very powerful voices in shaping US foreign
and budgetary policy.
But the Soviet
enemy no longer exists. The US dilemma, and it is a fundamental
contradiction, is that its expensive military power is largely useless
as an instrument of foreign policy. It lost the war in Vietnam,
and while it managed to overthrow popular regimes in Brazil, Chile,
and elsewhere in Latin America, its military power is useless in
dealing with the effects of larger social and political problems
– and Latin America, the Middle East, and East Asia are more
independent of American control than ever.
also, the US is far worse off in the oil-rich Middle East because
it made every mistake possible. It supported Islamic fundamentalism
against Communism but also against secular nationalism, Iraq against
Iran in the 1980s, and it is not simply losing the war in Iraq militarily
but also alienating most of its former friends in the region. And
Iran is emerging as the decisive power in the area.
The basic problem
the world today confronts is American ambition, an ambition based
on the illusion that its great military power allows it to define
political and social trends everywhere it chooses to do so. When
the USSR existed it was somewhat more inhibited because Soviet military
power neutralized American military might and there was a partial
equilibrium – a deterring balance of terror – in Europe.
Moreover, the USSR always advised its friends and nations in its
orbit to move carefully not to provoke the US, an inhibition that
no longer exists.
On the other
hand, just as the Warsaw Pact has disappeared, NATO is well along
in the process of breaking up and going the way of SEATO, CENTO,
etc. The 1999 war against Serbia made its demise much more likely
but the US-led alliance disagreed profoundly over the Iraq War and
now is likely to dissolve in fact, if not formally. The Bush Administration
produced a crisis with its alliance and has created profound instability
in Iraq, which was always an artificial state since the British
created it after World War One resulted in the end of the Ottoman
have nuclear weapons already, but the UN says another 30 or so have
the skill and resources to become nuclear powers. The world is escaping
the US, but it is also escaping the forms of control which were
in place when the USSR existed and states were too poor to build
nuclear weapons. The world is more dangerous now, in large part
because the US refuses to recognize the limits of its power and
retains the ambitions it had 50 years ago. But the spread of all
kinds of weapons also has its own momentum – one that US arms
exports aids immeasurably.
Iraq was not
at the top of the Bush Administration’s agenda when it came to power
in 2001. Bush was committed, however, to a "forward-leaning"
foreign policy, to use Rumsfeld’s words, and greater military activism.
Had September 11 not occurred, it is more likely that the Bush administration
would have confronted China, which has nuclear weapons. This administration
deems China a peer competitor in the vast East Asia region. It still
may do so, although Iraq has been a total disaster for the administration – militarily
and geopolitically – and greatly alienated the US public (faster
than Vietnam did).
The US military
is falling apart: its weapons have been ineffective, politically
Iraq is likely to break up into regional fiefdoms (as Afghanistan
has), and perhaps civil war – no one knows. From the Iraqi viewpoint
the war was a disaster, but it also repeated the failures the Americans
confronted in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
That the Iraq
resistance is divided will not save the US from defeat. Few believe
Iraq will be spared great trauma. In fact, many American officials
predicted this before the war began and they were ignored – just
as they were ignored when they predicted disaster in Vietnam in
We live in
a tragic world and war is considered more virtuous than peace – and
since arms-makers profit from wars and not peace, conventional wisdom
is reinforced by their lobbies and by preaching the cult of weaponry.
The US may
explore how to end its predicament in Iraq but only Iran can help
it. Ironically, Iran has gained most geopolitically from Saddam
Hussein’s defeat and has no incentive to save the Bush Administration
from the defeat now staring at it – both in Iraq and in future elections
in the US.
The world is
escaping American control, and Soviet prudence no longer inhibits
many movements and nations. World opposition is becoming decentralized
to a much greater extent and the US is less than ever able to control
it – although it may go financially bankrupt and break up its alliances
in the process of seeking to be hegemonic.
is cause for a certain optimism, based on a realistic assessment
of the balance-of-power in the world. I think we must avoid the
pessimism-optimism trap but be realistic. Although the Americans
are very destructive, they are also losing wars and wrecking themselves
economically and politically. But for a century the world has fought
wars, and while the US has been the leading power by far in making
wars since 1946, it has no monopoly on folly.
The task is
not only to prevent the US from inflicting more damage on the hapless
world – Iraq at this moment – but to root out the historic, global
illusions that led to its aggression.
Kolko [send him mail]
is the author, among other works, of Century
of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another
Century of War?, and Anatomy
of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience.
His latest book, The
Age of War, will be published in March 2006.