Withdrawal Symptoms

The following short extract is taken from an essay written by James K. Galbraith and published published months ago. It is especially appropriate today.

The successful use of military power—as Mao Zedong understood when he called America a “paper tiger”—entails a large element of bluff. Vietnam deflated the image that American power could never be challenged. To some extent, the Gulf War of 1991 restored that image, but the restoration was achieved by the limited aims and quick termination of that war. The Clinton successes in the Balkans came in part because all sides bought this lesson of the Gulf War. (With Serbia, the bluff came close to being called again; the Kosovo bombing campaign took 80 days and Russian diplomacy rescued us in the end.)

But now Iraq has once again exposed what military power cannot achieve, short of nuclear weapons. Iran and North Korea have taken notice. Meanwhile, our friends, the Europeans and the Japanese, must be asking themselves: Exactly what sort of security does the American alliance buy, and at what price?

Bush and Cheney have done more than merely bungle a war and damage the Army. They have destroyed the foundation of the post-Cold War world security system, which was the accepted authority of American military power. That reputation is now gone. It cannot be restored simply by retreating from Iraq. This does not mean that every ongoing alliance will now collapse. But they are all more vulnerable than they were before, and once we leave central Iraq, they will be weaker still. As these paper tigers start to blow in the wind, so too will America’s economic security erode.

From this point of view, the fuss over whether we were misled into war — Is the sky blue? Is the grass green? — stands in the way of a deeper debate that should start quite soon and ask this question: Now that Bush and Cheney have screwed up the only successful known model for world security under our leadership, what the devil do we do?

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