Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Is there an Iraq Syndrome?

Ray Takeyh and Stephen Biddle argue that there has been a clear decline in U.S. power and ability to get things done. In today's International Herald Tribune:

Before the Iraq Syndrome, American power exerted a major restraining influence on actors such as Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Rather than encouraging Hezbollah adventurism, Iran restrained it; after 9/11, for example, it is widely believed that Iranian emissaries confronted Hezbollah, demanding, effectively "We hope that wasn't you."

Iran acquiesced in the American takedown of the Afghan regime on its eastern border. Syria cooperated with America's war on terrorism and seemed willing to arrive at an accommodation with Washington. Even major powers such as Russia were more compliant, as Moscow accepted American military bases in neighboring former Soviet countries.

In 2006, by contrast, Hezbollah adventurism now gets the go-ahead from Tehran. An Iranian nuclear program that had crept forward at a rate designed to keep it under Western radar screens and safe from American retaliation now accelerates with apparent unconcern for the prospect of U.S. opposition, while Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, concludes his speeches with the cry, "America cannot do a damn thing."

At the same time, a North Korean nuclear program that accepted a modest buy-out in the 1990s now holds out for bigger payoffs while reprocessing nuclear fuel into bombs with impunity.

The Iraq Syndrome is likely to get worse before it gets better - and as it does, challenges such as Hezbollah, Iran and North Korea are likely to become more common. We are in for a season of trials that could create vexing challenges for U.S. foreign policy for a very long time to come.

Americans may yearn for a breathing space, but the Iraq Syndrome is more likely to yield a full-court press as maladies that could have been halted before Iraq now multiply instead.

The perception that the U.S. is weaker in 2006 than it was prior to the Iraq war in 2002 is an interesting proposition--or one could argue that the high-water mark was late spring 2003, with the easy decapitation of two enemy regimes--the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's Iraq--but in any event the decline follows American efforts to focus on transformation rather than deterrence.

There certainly seems to have been a change from 2002 to 2006, but to see what has changed (and what hasn't) I think we need to answer a more detailed set of questions.

These are whether the decline in American ability to make effective use of US power is:

1. A function of elected leadership that will be replaced in 2009.

2. A function of deeper problems in the thinking within government departments and agencies over how to employ existing resources for waging war and peace. This thinking will presumably continue in future administrations unless and until it is changed with the help of the larger community of people who study national security both in and out of government.

3. A function of constraints on US power that involve the level of resources available for war. These constraints are either (a) absolute, in the sense that no amount of domestic public support can overcome them, or (b) relative to domestic public support, which is a function of how threatened the public feels and how willing it is to bear greater burdens.

How much has changed in the last four years, and what we can expect in the future, I think depends on how many of the above functions apply.
Perception is an important part of power projection, as well as assessments of willingness to use force and pay costs. The "Iraq Syndrome" discussed here calls attention not only to actual losses and degradation of forces but also an erosion in U.S. capacity to utilize power now that we have an actual case (Iraq).
After 9/11, the world was virtually with the USA. Targetting the Taliban for sheltering Bin Laden had many supporters outside the US.

But all that changed with the invasion of Iraq. Whatever Bush and Blair may have said since then in justification, the gravity of the threat perception(existence of WMD's and 48 hours logic) to their nations is still not convincing.

The little time spent on garnering UN and European support could have been channelled toward Syria and Iran. Instead of putting them on ice, there could have been a ice breaking exercise with the two countries. Apart from them, most other Arab nations dependent on US security abhorred Saddam anyway.

Syria and Iran are key countries for solution to the Iraq crisis. Their help and support coud have been instrumental in containing latent insurgency.

In the exercise of power, the US overlooked the delicate power balance in the region, which could have facilitated exit from Iraq by the first deadline.

Clubbing Syria and Iran with Iraq and hyping up power with jargons like axis of evil, crusades etc., took away initial US initiatives leaving US power hamstrung and sometimes ineffective.
When you want maximalist solutions everywhere all at once, you can't set priorities (e.g. is Syria a terrible evil or a livable irritant)--and you fritter your power away.
The perception that the U.S. is weaker in 2006 than it was prior to the Iraq war in 2002 is an interesting proposition

It sure is. I think "weaker" is a less accurate word than "decline in ability to get things done" - our absolute capabilities have not declined much, but world and domestic awareness of the limitations that were *always there* were higher. Another part of the situation is definitely the national mood and/or tone of debate. Comparable to the national mood in 1965 vs. 1972. We weren't much weaker absolutely, but a predictive behavioral analysis of the US would look a lot different.

On the other hand, I absolutely agree that our zealotry to transform has expended a lot of blood and treasure. It's not crippling, but it's not insignificant either. A sharp reduction in Iraqi forces, though, and we might be in a position to surprise someone else who takes the weakness zeitgeist too much to heart.

Lastly, to pick nits with the authors, Iran would still be unhappy if Hizballah blew up the WTC, and military raids into Israel, for better or worse, are not in the same league of reprecussions.

Jordan W' 02
It is not just the "zealotry to transform" that is the probloem. It is the unwillingness to pay any substantial price to achieve the aims of such transofrmation.

Look at DC; they are all at home after 6:00 PM; they are not even willing to work much beyond 9-5.
assuming Iraq syndrome correct, what are possible scenarios arising from policy changes that will flow from elections in 2006-8? Meaning, if world much more dangerous now because of Iraq syndrome, what political consequences could make that situation worse? Can one imagine a non partisan politcal scenario that would be desired? Or is the downward momentum so strong that no political outcome can change the reality of a hard landing?
Anonymous 5:33,

The events that sway the electorate may be too volatile to make any forecast of the elections with confidence. But if the recent London arrests have not moved the electorate closer to President Bush and his party, national security may not be the Republican issue this fall that it was in 2002 and 2004.

But whatever happens in the fall, the main question afterwards will be whether the Bush administration goes to war with Iran, and if so, how the war will go. I don't think an adverse 2006 election will affect the President's inclination to go to war. My guess is that if he believes he must attack he will do so under the thirty day grace period afforded by the War Powers Act. That will put the onus on Congress to decide whether to terminate the war or to back it.

If instead the President has been dissuaded from widening the conflict in the Middle East, the proximate danger is not that radical Islam will march on to further victories but that Israel might become desperate. However, it is not clear what Israel could do by itself to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Assuming the UN Security Council refuses to impose effective sanctions, the chances of a wider war in the Middle East may be higher in the next two years. But if the timetable for Iran to obtain working nuclear weapons is longer, then we may instead be in something of a lull on that front, although events in Iraq could come to a violent climax.
Iran already has all that it needs to build a nuclear weapon. If the President attacks Iran he should be impeached.

Any way; what is the point of attacking Iran?

What can be achieved?
"What can be achieved?"

That depends on the kind of attack. A single air strike would probably accomplish nothing. An invasion with whatever US forces are available might seem to the White House and the Pentagon sufficient to overthrow the theocracy and get out, and they could take the plunge.

The recent Newsweek column by a former White House aide suggests that the present administration is focused not on what could happen if we take military action against Iran but on what could happen if we do not. If that is the mindset in the White House, then the chances of our going to war in 2007 may be very high.

Impeachment will not happen unless the war goes badly or leads to a stalemated occupation.
I imagine US could use something like a few thousand air strikes to destroy military and civilian infrastructure in Iran. Of course, government of Iran would be aware of that since it takes a while to collect all those assets needed for an aerial war in the immediate area. So there will be no surprises there.

Of course, in a way, such a war will elimiate a lot of incoherence in US policy (but not all); it will mean that US is at war with Islam. US cannot win this war and cannot dictate the terms of the peace.

Some of the consequences would be the destruction of the following:

US Army in Iraq,
Oil Facilities of Saudi Arabia, UAE
US Military facilities in UAE, Bahrain,
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