Friday, April 11, 2003


What the Fall of Baghdad Means

The stunning victory of American and British forces in overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime in a little more than three week’s time has changed the world forever. This is as momentous an occasion in its own way as 9-11.

Why is this so? Because it demonstrated that the United States could, at comparatively little cost, and with comparatively little loss of American lives, overthrow the government of a middle sized regime.

Once the United States became the sole remaining dominant power in the world, the natural fear was that it would throw its weight around. Although the United States is convinced of the righteousness of its own causes, not all other countries agree. Therefore they have reason to be afraid.

There are lots of ways to throw your weight around. The actual use of military force is only the most overt. Most countries assumed that the United States might indeed begin to bully them, but they assumed that military force would be used as a last resort. There were two reasons for this. First, the use of military force is costly and expensive. It takes a long time to gather the necessary forces, and prepare them for battle. It is also very expensive to do so. Second, military campaigns are unpredictable and may lead to serious casualties by the attacking side, even if the attacker is much more powerful.

These time constrains and expense of military action, many people thought, were a natural deterrent against military adventurism by the world’s remaining superpower. Although the United States might huff and puff, it would not blow other countries’ houses down. The U.S. lost in Vietnam, and it won in the first Gulf War only by assembling overwhelming force. It could not afford to do that more than once in a decade. Moreover, as Vietnam demonstrated, a limited war can easily spiral into a larger war with significant American casualties.

If the U.S. could use its military force to launch a full scale war only infrequently, the argument went, certain types of foreign policy strategies would be off the table. In particular, the U.S. could not get into a series of wars designed preemptively to eliminate threats or displace troublesome regimes.

The victory in Iraq upset those calculations. Rumsfeld’s idea was to retool the U.S. military so that it could attack early and often, with comparatively minimal cost and with comparatively little loss of American life. Those two features– low cost and low American casualties-- were essential in order to ensure support at home for a series of military adventures. (Note that low American casualties does not mean low casualties in general– lots of enemy forces can be annihilated without losing domestic support).

Rumsfeld has been proved right, at least so far. The American public, doubtful about the war, has changed its views in the last three weeks and now largely supports the war. As the saying goes, victory has many fathers, defeat is an orphan.

Proving that the U.S. can overthrow regimes it does not like with relatively low cost and low American casualties changes the world because it now means that the United States can make a credible threat to engage in a series of wars against small to midsized regimes that it dislikes or regards as potential threats. That of, course, is a necessary precondition to the strategy of preemptive attack against the nation’s enemies favored by Assistant Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, which is now part of the country’s larger foreign policy strategy, as outlined in by President Bush in June of 2002.

The strategy of military preemption against countries that pose a present or future threat was only feasible if the nature of war were modified sufficiently so that the U.S. could credibly threaten to engage in limited cost/limited casualty wars early and often. The fall of Baghdad strengthens the hands of those who claim that this is now possible.

Let me say that as much as I admire the planning that went into the fall of Baghdad, these events cause me to shudder with apprehension. The demonstration that America can go to war early and often if it wants to greatly increases the chances that it will do so, and that we will be fighting a series of wars in the near future. To be sure, the Bush Administration, if it is canny, will not do this. It will simply use the fall of Baghdad to demonstrate what it *can* do, so that its ability to threaten and cajole without actually using force will be thereby enhanced. Nevertheless, recent events will encourage an even more swaggering attitude by the Bush Administration toward the rest of the world. That is likely to increase the chances that military force will be planned and employed.

A great danger is that even if the war in Iraq turns out to be low cost/low casualty, the next war and the war after that will not be. In other words, we may be falling into a trap of our own making.

Perhaps equally important are two other factors. First, the greatest enemy of a power like ours is our own hubris, the belief that we can do pretty much whatever we want, by brute force if necessary. That hubris is dangerous because it leads to overreaching, and overreaching can lead to catastrophe and decline.

Second, a continuous series of wars is not only bad for other countries. (Remember low casualties for our forces doesn’t necessarily mean low casualties for other countries). A series of wars is also bad for the health of our democracy. More war means that more and more expenditures must be diverted to military and national security concerns. More war means more and more justifications offered to limit civil liberties. More war means more and more efforts to dissuade criticism on the grounds that we must support our troops while they are in the field. And more war means more opportunities for Americans to be attacked on their own soil by terrorists eager for revenge.

Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney are now justifiably happy that their wish for a powerful, mobile army has been granted.

But precisely because their wish has been granted, the most dangerous times for our country now lie ahead.


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It’s strange how dreams get under your skin and give your heart a test for what’s real and what’s imaginary.
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