When I wrote about the “end of history” almost twenty years ago, one thing that I did not anticipate was the degree to which American behavior and misjudgments would make anti-Americanism one of the chief fault-lines of global politics. And yet, particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that is precisely what has happened, owing to four key mistakes made by the Bush administration.
First, the doctrine of “preemption,” which was devised in response to the 2001 attacks, was inappropriately broadened to include Iraq and other so-called “rogue states” that threatened to develop weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, preemption is fully justified vis-à-vis stateless terrorists wielding such weapons. But it cannot be the core of a general non-proliferation policy, whereby the United States intervenes militarily everywhere to prevent the development of nuclear weapons.
The cost of executing such a policy simply would be too high (several hundred billion dollars and tens of thousands of casualties in Iraq and still counting). This is why the Bush administration has shied away from military confrontations with North Korea and Iran, despite its veneration of Israel’s air strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, which set back Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program by several years. After all, the very success of that attack meant that such limited intervention could never be repeated, because would-be proliferators learned to bury, hide, or duplicate their nascent weapons programs.
The second important miscalculation concerned the likely global reaction to America’s exercise of its hegemonic power. Many people within the Bush administration believed that even without approval by the UN Security Council or NATO, American power would be legitimized by its successful use. This had been the pattern for many US initiatives during the Cold War, and in the Balkans during the 1990’s; back then, it was known as “leadership” rather than “unilateralism.”
But, by the time of the Iraq war, conditions had changed: the US had grown so powerful relative to the rest of the world that the lack of reciprocity became an intense source of irritation even to America’s closest allies. The structural anti-Americanism arising from the global distribution of power was evident well before the Iraq war, in the opposition to American-led globalization during the Clinton years. But it was exacerbated by the Bush administration’s “in-your-face” disregard for a variety of international institutions as soon it came into office – a pattern that continued through the onset of the Iraq war.
America’s third mistake was to overestimate how effective conventional military power would be in dealing with the weak states and networked transnational organizations that characterize international politics, at least in the broader Middle East. It is worth pondering why a country with more military power than any other in human history, and that spends as much on its military as virtually the rest of the world combined, cannot bring security to a small country of 24 million people after more than three years of occupation. At least part of the problem is that it is dealing with complex social forces that are not organized into centralized hierarchies that can enforce rules, and thus be deterred, coerced, or otherwise manipulated through conventional power.
Israel made a similar mistake in thinking that it could use its enormous margin of conventional military power to destroy Hezbollah in last summer’s Lebanon War. Both Israel and the US are nostalgic for a twentieth-century world of nation-states, which is understandable, since that is the world to which the kind of conventional power they possess is best suited.
But nostalgia has led both states to misinterpret the challenges they now face, whether by linking al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or Hezbollah to Iran and Syria. This linkage does exist in the case of Hezbollah, but the networked actors have their own social roots and are not simply pawns used by regional powers. This is why the exercise of conventional power has become frustrating.
Finally, the Bush administration’s use of power has lacked not only a compelling strategy or doctrine, but also simple competence. In Iraq alone, the administration misestimated the threat of WMD, failed to plan adequately for the occupation, and then proved unable to adjust quickly when things went wrong. To this day, it has dropped the ball on very straightforward operational issues in Iraq, such as funding democracy promotion efforts.
Incompetence in implementation has strategic consequences. Many of the voices that called for, and then bungled, military intervention in Iraq are now calling for war with Iran. Why should the rest of the world think that conflict with a larger and more resolute enemy would be handled any more capably?
But the fundamental problem remains the lopsided distribution of power in the international system. Any country in the same position as the US, even a democracy, would be tempted to exercise its hegemonic power with less and less restraint. America’s founding fathers were motivated by a similar belief that unchecked power, even when democratically legitimated, could be dangerous, which is why they created a constitutional system of internally separated powers to limit the executive.
Such a system does not exist on a global scale today, which may explain how America got into such trouble. A smoother international distribution of power, even in a global system that is less than fully democratic, would pose fewer temptations to abandon the prudent exercise of power.