The dilemma the U.S. has had for a half-century
is that the priorities it must impose on its budget and its plans have never
guided its actual behavior and action. It has always believed, as well it should,
that Europe and its control would determine the future of world power. But it
has fought in Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq – the so-called "Third World"
in general – where the stakes of power were much smaller. Its priorities were
specific, focused on specific nations, but they also set the United States the
task of guiding or controlling the entire world – which is a very big place
and has proven time and again to be far beyond American resources and power.
In most of those places in the Third World where it massively employed its power
directly, it has lost, and its military might has been ineffective. Local proxies
have been corrupt and venal in most nations where the U.S. has relied upon them.
The cost, both in financial terms and the eventual alienation of the American
public, has been monumental.
The Pentagon developed strategic air power and nuclear weapons with the
USSR as its primary target, and it equipped itself to fight a land war in Eastern
Europe. Arms-makers much preferred this expensive approach, and they still are
very powerful. The Soviet enemy no longer exists. The U.S. dilemma, and it is
a fundamental contradiction, is that its expensive military power is largely
useless as an instrument of foreign policy. It lost the war in Vietnam, and
while it managed to overthrow popular regimes in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere
in Latin America, its military power is useless in dealing with the effects
of larger social and political problems – and Latin America, the Middle East,
and East Asia are more independent of American control than ever.
Strategically, also, the U.S. is far worse off in the oil-rich Middle East
because it made every mistake possible. It supported Islamic fundamentalism
against Communism but also against secular nationalism, Iraq against Iran in
the 1980s, and it is not simply losing the war in Iraq militarily but also alienating
most of its former friends in the region. And Iran is emerging as the decisive
power in the area.
The basic problem the world today confronts is American ambition, an ambition
based on the illusion that its great military power allows the U.S. to define
political and social trends everywhere it chooses to do so. When the USSR existed,
it was somewhat more inhibited because Soviet military power neutralized American
military might and there was a partial equilibrium – a deterring balance of
terror– in Europe. Moreover, the USSR always advised its friends and nations
in its orbit to move carefully so as not to provoke the U.S., an inhibition
that no longer exists.
On the other hand, just as the Warsaw Pact has disappeared, NATO is well
along in the process of breaking up and going the way of SEATO, CENTO, etc.
The 1999 war against Serbia made its demise much more likely, but the U.S.-led
alliance disagreed profoundly over the Iraq war and now is likely to dissolve
in fact, if not formally. The Bush administration produced a crisis with its
alliance and has created profound instability in Iraq, which was always an artificial
state, as the British created it after World War One resulted in the end of
the Ottoman Empire. Eight nations have nuclear weapons already, but the UN says
another 30 or so have the skill and resources to become nuclear powers. The
world is escaping the U.S., but it is also escaping the forms of control that
existed when the USSR existed and states were too poor to build nuclear weapons.
The world is more dangerous, in large part because the U.S. refuses to recognize
the limits of its power and retains the ambitions it had 50 years ago, but the
spread of all kinds of weapons also has its own momentum – one the U.S.' arms
exports aids immeasurably.
Iraq was not at the top of the Bush administration's agenda when it came
to power in 2001. It was committed, however, to a "forward-leaning"
foreign policy, to use Rumsfeld's words, and greater military activism. Had
Sept. 11 not occurred, it is more likely that it would have confronted China,
which has nuclear weapons but which this administration deems a peer competitor
in the vast East Asia region. It still may do so, although Iraq has been a total
disaster for it – militarily and geopolitically – and has greatly alienated
the U.S. public (faster than Vietnam did). The U.S. military is falling apart,
its weapons have been ineffective, politically Iraq is likely to break up into
regional fiefdoms (as Afghanistan has), civil war – no one knows. From the Iraqi
viewpoint, the war has been a disaster, but it has also repeated the failures
the Americans confronted in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
That the Iraq resistance is divided will not save the U.S. from defeat.
Few believe Iraq will be spared great trauma. In fact, official American experts
predicted this before the war began, and they were ignored – just as they were
ignored when they predicted disaster in Vietnam in the 1960s. We live in a tragic
world, and war is considered more virtuous than peace – and since arms-makers
profit from wars and not peace, conventional wisdom is reinforced by their lobbies
preaching the cult of weaponry. The U.S. may explore how to end its predicament
in Iraq but only Iran can help it, and Iran has gained the most geopolitically
from Saddam Hussein's defeat and has no incentive to save the Bush administration
from the defeat now staring at it – both in Iraq and in future elections in
The world is escaping American control, and Soviet caution no longer inhibits
many movements and nations. World opposition is becoming decentralized to a
much greater extent, and the U.S. is less able than ever to control it – although
it may go financially bankrupt and break up its alliances in the process of
seeking hegemony. This is cause for a certain optimism, based on a realistic
assessment of the balance of power in the world. I think we must avoid the pessimism-optimism
trap but be realistic, and although the Americans are very destructive, they
are also losing wars and wrecking themselves economically and politically. But
for a century, the world has fought wars, and while the U.S. has been the leading
power – by far – in making wars since 1946, it has no monopoly on folly.
But it is crucial to remember that the U.S. is only a reflection of the militarism
and irrationality that has blinded many leaders of mankind for over a century.
The task is not only to prevent the U.S. from inflicting more damage on the
hapless world – Iraq at this moment – but to root out the historic, global illusions
that led to its aggression.
This is a revised version of a Dec. 16 interview with L'Unita on
Gabriel Kolko's Century
of War, soon to be released in an extended translation.