The Limits of Power

By Andrew C. Kuchins

Originally published in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 15, 2003. For original article in Russian click here.

During the past winter and spring when the Bush administration was gearing up for and then carried out a stunning military defeat of Saddam Hussain's forces in Iraq the buzz was all about a new age of U.S. imperial rule dominated by the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a new sex symbol for the Viagra age, epitomized the so-called hard-headed realism and disdained friends and allies who disagreed as "Old Europe," "chocolate-makers," and the like. U.S. foreign policy that seemed to boil down to "my way or the highway" alarmed politicians and policymakers from Berlin to Beijing and anti-American sentiments reached new heights around the world.

Ahh, but how quickly things change. As predicted by so many, the military victory was the easy part, and post-war reconstruction is proving to be a very expensive and dangerous endeavor. Iraqi guerilla terrorist forces in small but steady numbers are picking off U.S. soldiers day by day. There are more U.S. casualties now from post-war period than the military conflict itself. This is like Chinese water torture for U.S. public opinion. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's principal coalition partner, now finds his political career in grave danger over allegations that his administration "sexed up" intelligence about Iraqi WMD programs. With the U.S. 2004 presidential campaign beginning in earnest this month, Mr. Bush's popularity has sunk back to pre-9/11 levels.

After a month of clearing brush in Crawford and raising cash for Republican election coffers, Mr. Bush returned to Washington this week a chastened man. While administration spin doctors downplay significant changes this week in US policy toward the future UN role in Iraq and a less intransigent stance towards North Korea as "evolutionary," it is obvious that the stock of Mr. Rumsfeld and other unilateralists in the administration has dropped considerably. On September 4th, former Commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East General Anthony Zinni lambasted the Bush administration and the Pentagon in particular for its failures and lack of strategy for rebuilding Iraq. Zinni's criticism was especially sharp given that he had supported President Bush's campaign in 2000.

The bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad last month opened an opportunity for Secretary of State Powell to convince the President that the U.S. needed significant financial and military help as soon as possible from other countries, and the only way to gain it was through a United Nations mandate. Even so, the Administration will approach Congress in the next two weeks with a reported $60-$70 billion request for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq for next year alone. This will be on top of what is already estimated to be an all-time high U.S. federal deficit in the neighborhood of $400-$500 billion in 2004. Not only are U.S. forces spread too thin to sustain the current level of occupation forces in Iraq, but the financial costs during a period of weak economic growth appear unsustainable without significant assistance. So now with summer vacation over, the Bush administration will be returning to the UN hat in hand to seek a new resolution for an international peacekeeping force under US command. These negotiations will not be easy, and the President Bush has considerably less leverage with the UN now because the current status quo in Iraq is not viable either politically or economically for Washington.

It is also reported that at the multilateral talks in Beijing last week the Bush Administration adopted a more flexible stance allowing possibly for some concessions including economic aid and movement towards a peace treaty while North Korea evidences progress towards destruction of its nuclear weapons program. This marks a shift from the earlier position that no concessions would be made until the North Koreans had eliminated their nuclear program. Even so, U.S. intransigence was criticized after the talks by the host Chinese as well as U.S. ally South Korea. As distasteful as it may be, the Bush Administration has no choice but to negotiate with "Dear Leader" since a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea's nuclear and missile programs is not a credible threat given the likely catastrophic consequences. U.S. intransigence, not to speak of military options, would have no support from U.S. allies South Korea and Japan-not to speak of China and Russia.

Those fearful of an unbounded U.S. empire should take some solace. As impressive as U.S. military might be, Washington is hardly in a position to be the "new Rome." But it is not so much unbridled imperialism that worries Washington's allies and friends, but rather that the United States may overextend itself and undercut the solid economic foundation on which U.S. power rests. That is a mid- to long-term concern. The near-term concern is-whether it be in Iraq, North Korea, or elsewhere-that U.S. efforts to enhance national and global security may actually be counterproductive. The past six months in Iraq have vividly displayed both the awesomeness of U.S. military power as well as its limits. Fortunately it appears the Bush administration is responding to domestic and international pressures to scale back its ambitions and arrogance. Better late than never.

Andrew C. Kuchins is Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.