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Groundhog Day in Iraq

America's foreign policy elite seems incapable of understanding the limited uses of hard power. Until they do, we'll continue to get into wars like Iraq -- over and over again.
 
 
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As the architects of the Iraq war cast about for someone to blame for their debacle, they've turned their sights inward -- to the U.S. public. A lack of fortitude among the American people is to blame; only the folks back home can defeat our awe-inspiring military.

Others, despairing of the Bush administration's "soft approach" to the Iraq insurgency -- and casting hungry eyes toward Tehran -- have adopted a feverish, almost genocidal view of the war. If only we had the stomach to bring more firepower to bear on the Iraqi people, they say, "victory" would be assured.

In both formulations, the media is ultimately at fault for poisoning Americans' view of the war and sapping our national strength. But the war's advocates have no one to blame but themselves; we are in Iraq because of their delusion that raw military power can solve even the most complex transnational issues. They're incapable of grasping the importance of real moral legitimacy in modern warfare. Without that legitimacy, even the most powerful military in the world is likely to get dragged into a quagmire and, when it does, the public's weariness is entirely predictable. File it away as another error in post-war planning.

Many military thinkers -- people like Colin Powell and Anthony Zinni -- learned the hard way, in Vietnam, how important it is to be right as well as strong. They appreciate hard power but also understand that wars of choice or ideological preference won't cut it unless they're over very quickly. Recent history is full of grim examples of the most powerful states launching wars with thin justification, only to find themselves bogged down by militarily weak resistance groups.

But America's foreign policy elite -- our strategic class -- seems incapable of learning from those experiences. For them -- both "hawks" and "doves" -- hard power remains the ultimate tool of the game; he who has the most raw force will usually prevail. It's a belief that's deeply embedded in the strategic worldview, and it's been reinforced again and again by political philosophers through the ages: Thucydides ("The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must"); Niccolo Machiavelli ("War should be the only study of a prince"); Thomas Hobbes ("Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues"); and Mao Tse-Tung ("Whoever has an army has power, and war decides everything"). And it remains a touchstone of international relations today; Hans Morgenthau, the "father of modern realism," wrote that "World public opinion as a restraint on the struggle for power is a fiction" and "International law … is a fiction as well."

But times change. Before the last century, it was largely (but not wholly) true that military might usually won out in the end. An army could, if need be, kill every man, woman and child in the enemy's camp without facing recrimination back home or condemnation abroad. Three developments in the 20th century changed the rules of the game.

First, the brutality of the two world wars drained much of the romance from warfare; after the second global conflict in a 20-year span, launching a war of aggression became the highest international crime.

Second, the concept of human rights took hold, embedding value in all human lives -- including the lives of foreign citizens. No longer do we view enemy civilians as sub-human, to be slaughtered with impunity.

Third, and most significantly, the world became wired for instant communication. Now, we watch wars unfold on CNN in real-time. And it's not just CNN; the news broadcast to the world is beyond the control of any government. Images of mangled Iraqi children are all over the internet.

For the United States, there's another factor: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we've been at the top of the food chain, too powerful to fear attack from other states. As long as that remains the case, we'll always be fighting "wars of choice" based on shaky grounds that are open to debate.

The new reality -- elusive to a strategic class mired in pre-1900 thinking -- is that in asymmetrical conflicts, military force is only effective when combined with the legitimacy that can win over the hearts and minds of a world that's grown skeptical of the Great Powers' interventions in the developing world.

Lacking that legitimacy, home-grown insurgents can bring even the most powerful to a standstill; the United States had enough power to wipe out every North Vietnamese, the Russians could have slaughtered every Afghan and the Israelis have the ability to kill every last Palestinian. Today, we have the capacity to fulfill the most brutal fantasies of the Michelle Malkin set and turn Iraq into a sea of nuclear glass. But that capacity is meaningless in the context of modern warfare. So we lost Vietnam, the Russians lost Afghanistan, and Israel and the U.S. are bogged down in violent occupations in the Middle East that have no end in sight.

If only the hawks who lust after these wars could understand the limited utility of hard power. But they're blind to the fact that, lacking the kind of broad international consensus that the United States had during the "first" Gulf War -- another conflict launched under false pretenses -- the public will always give them just a brief window of flag-waving opportunity to wreak havoc on the weak (think Grenada in 1983 or Panama in 1989).

There was never much support for the Iraq war; a majority opposed it a month before it was launched, there was a spike of support as the attack began, and it's declined ever since. That was to be expected. As the premise for a war of choice unravels and the costs -- in blood and treasure -- mount, public support will always prove to be an illusion.

Instead of whining about how the American public's support for their war has eroded, the Rumsfelds, Cheneys and their cohorts would be better served getting their collective head around the fact that as long as the rationale is weak, power will only go so far.

If they can't figure that out, Iraq won't be our last drawn-out adventure in the global south; we'll shed blood on the soil of other far-off little countries that most Americans can't find on a map, the media will hype other tin-pot dictators as the next coming of Hitler, and the defense industry will have other opportunities to shake some silver out of the treasury. And we'll wake up in a decade or so facing another quagmire and realize it's Groundhog Day all over again.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.