Shedding the illusions of shock and awe:
Why are we in Iraq? Because both neocons and Dems like Kerry believed
in a U.S. omnipotent military
By Andrew J. Bacevich
On at least one point the John Kerry campaign and the rabidly anti-
Kerry neoconservative wing of the Republican Party concur: The Bush
administration has made a hash of its war in Iraq.
Consider this assessment: a "dysfunctional" administration mired
in "bureaucratic chaos" and leaving in its wake a trail of "goof-
ups," "ham-handedness," and sheer "incompetence." Extracts from a
Kerry speech? No, those are the views of Max Boot, whose weekly
column in the Los Angeles Times serves as a platform for the
unabashed advocacy of a global American empire. When it comes to
lamenting the Bush team's ineptitude in Iraq, the liberal Kerry and
the neocon Boot stand arm-in-arm.
But this improbable consensus obscures a larger truth to which
neither the Kerry campaign nor neoconservatives have yet to own up.
It's not mismanagement that has us mired in Iraq. There is a more
fundamental explanation: the misleading and dangerous conception of
modern war to which Democrats and Republicans alike have subscribed.
The fact is that in the aftermath of the Cold War, Americans became
enthralled with military power.
Central to this infatuation was the conviction, emerging out of
Desert Storm, that the United States had unlocked the innermost
secrets of warfare. For the world's sole superpower, gone were the
risks and uncertainties endemic to past conflicts. Gone too was the
prospect of massive destruction and incidental slaughter. Armed with
its high-tech arsenal, the United States could henceforth employ its
military might with laser-like precision and unerring effectiveness.
Ignoring the contrary evidence of Mogadishu, American political
elites during the 1990s came to view force as a readily available,
economical and surefire instrument of policy.
In the wake of 9/11, this vision of warfare lent plausibility to
grandiose claims that armed force could enable the United States
to "transform" the Greater Middle East. The ostensible invincibility
of the American military juggernaut -- seemingly affirmed by the
preliminary results of Afghanistan -- made ambitious politicians like
Kerry hesitate to speak up in opposition when the Bush administration
next trained its sights on Iraq.
By all rights the actual experience of U.S. forces since ought to
have shattered such illusions. Uncertainty, error and painful losses
suffered by combatants and noncombatants alike: All of these form
part of the daily reality of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the advanced weaponry that had presumably changed warfare
forever has proven to be of marginal relevance. The crude IED
("improvised explosive device") rather than the sophisticated smart-
bomb dominates the battlefield. The videotaped beheading has become a
more effective method of waging information warfare than anything
that American technology has been able to devise.
In short, the campaign launched amid claims of unveiling a military
revolution has taken a decidedly counter-revolutionary turn: in this
conflict as in so many past ones, unanticipated consequences are a
fixture; surprise a constant; decision elusive; and the human and
material costs staggering.
Time and again, history has made a mockery of man's efforts to
effectively harness violence for political purposes. During the
interval between the Cold War and 9/11, Americans had indulged in the
fantasy that history no longer constrained the United States. Our
soldiers in Iraq must now deal with the consequences of that delusion.
In its handling of Iraq, the Bush administration has indeed blundered
repeatedly. Those blunders have become the grist of daily political
discourse. For the likes of John Kerry and Max Boot -- the one unable
to provide a coherent account of his early failure to oppose the war
and the other eager to distance himself from the enterprise that he
had previously promoted with such gusto -- the incompetence of others
serves as a convenient dodge. For the rest of us, uneasy at the
prospect of Iraq forming just one theater of a "global war" expected
to last for decades if not generations, that dodge is intolerable.
The truth is that unless American political leaders disabuse
themselves of their misconceptions about war, today's Iraq may well
be a preview of similar disasters yet to come.
Don't count on Max Boot or any of his fellow hawks to let you in on
that secret. But to demonstrate his fitness for the presidency, Kerry
must summon the courage to do so. The issue of the day is not Iraq
alone but the imperative of finding our way back to a more prudent
and realistic understanding of the role of military power, one
consistent with our moral traditions and actually existing U.S.
national security requirements.
Andrew J. Bacevich teaches international relations at Boston
University. He is the author of "The New American Militarism,"
forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
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