Today's date:
Winter 2008

War Through the Back Door

Summer 2003

Two sets of developments define the new era. The 9/11 terror attacks and SARS, like the Asian financial contagion before it, mark the end of "naive globalization." The preemptive invasion of Iraq, which split apart the Atlantic Alliance and sidelined the United Nations, marks the end of the post-Cold War years.

What comes next will be a wary globalization that carries with it new vulnerabilities as well as opportunities, and what former CIA director James Woolsey calls "World War IV" (the Cold War being WWIII)—the American campaign to spread modernization and democratization to the Arab Middle East as part and parcel of the fight against terrorism.

By now, it is clear that the post-Cold War peace, albeit marred by outbreaks of genocide in the Balkans and Africa, was as transitory as the boom and the vision of a happy global village that floated on its bubble. Looking ahead, it is hard not to see contagion, war, terror, debt and perhaps even deflation clouding the horizon.

Though the world's superpower amply demonstrated its military prowess bringing down the Iraqi dictator in record time, its decisive role in shaping a new order after the post-Cold War will be hampered by a legitimation crisis abroad and a public at home thoroughly unprepared and lacking the will to do what it takes to remake the Middle East. "What it takes" is a lot, from holding back Shiite populism in Iraq to pulling out all the stops to bring about a Palestinian state without civil war both within Israel and among Palestinians.

The neo-Wilsonian conservatives in the Bush Administration may have succeeded in hijacking American anxiety over mass destruction weapons for their ulterior motive of overthrowing Saddam. But the cost of waging war through the back door is that the political objectives for which military might paved the way cannot now be met. Instead, quagmire—the deployment of military force without sustaining political will—beckons.

As noble as tumbling a dictator and remodeling the region may be, the war the American public was asked to support was not one that would involve decades and billions to transform the Arab world, but a war to remove the imminent danger of weapons that might fall into hateful hands.

It was the absence of evidence of such a danger that led most of the world to oppose the war. And now the inability to find a ready arsenal of threatening weapons in Iraq further undermines US credibility in global public opinion. The US policy of preemption against terrorist threats in the future—no matter how real—has been largely discredited.

Indeed, the only place America seems to have increased its credibility is among those who speak the language of force and repression—Islamist jihadists, the North Korean Stalinists, the Iranian mullahs and, to a longer term extent, the Chinese rulers.

But even among the rogue set the "demonstration effect" of overthrowing a regime weakened by 12 years of sanctions remains unclear. Certainly, Syria feels cowed. But the lesson of the war for North Korea already seems to be that it must accelerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons to ward off a US assault. In Iran, both moderates and hardliners seem to share the view that now, more than ever, with US forces at the doorstep, Iranian independence, if not the survival of the Islamic Revolution, can only be guaranteed by possessing a nuclear bomb. This political determination across the Iranian political spectrum most likely means the US will not invade Iran but will launch preemptive attacks on its nuclear facilities as they come closer to completion.

It is the neo-Wilsonian notion of reshaping the world, however, that cuts most against the grain of America's isolationist instinct, which is why the neoconservatives avoided placing their agenda in the spotlight in the run-up to war. With tax cuts and an economic downturn already stripping public budgets, few Americans would have signed on obligingly to fight World War IV. As the cost in lives and treasure grows, what minuscule political will exists for a revived manifest destiny at the "end of history" will evaporate entirely.

As realists in American foreign policy have long understood, Americans like the idea of an idealistic foreign policy, but are unprepared to pay the costs if they are not faced with a convincing threat. The historical irony is that the chief consequence of the neo-Wilsonian policy coup within the Bush Administration will be to teach the sole superpower its own limits.