This nation and its leaders have been humbled over the past decade by the ambiguous results of the American military power unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is customary to think in terms of wars won and wars lost—but what was Iraq? Certainly not a victory, though Saddam Hussein is history. But not a defeat, either. A tie, perhaps, but with whom? Maybe it’s that the war inside Iraq isn’t over, and that the future of Iraq is highly uncertain; but for the United States, the war has ended, in the sense that our troops have come home and it is all but unimaginable that they will go back. Afghanistan similarly looks to be shaping up as something that will end in neither victory nor defeat nor stalemate.
And yet, despite all this, the United States remains unquestionably the world’s predominant power. As my Hoover Institution colleague Kori Schake has observed, nowadays America has the luxury of not having to win its wars. For a country to find itself in such a position, with so much margin for error, must be some sort of triumph of grand strategy.
But no one in America feels triumphant, and no one is satisfied.
Domestically, if ever was a moment for a resurgent radicalism, surely it came in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008—yet no serious proposal for systemic change to make us happier, wealthier, and freer has sparked the national imagination. Democracy and capitalism, American-style, remain in force. Yet no one in America, left or right, seems to think our system is healthy.
How did we get to a moment in which America and the American system are without clear rivals, but Americans feel burdened and weakened? Barack Obama is the world’s preeminent figure, yet uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The president carries American power heavily, as though it discomfits him. Alas for Obama, he can find no way to relieve himself of it. He would clearly like to wield it less and, in all cases, avoid flaunting it.
But the world won’t let him.
The United States at the end of the Cold War was a rich and powerful country suddenly dealing with a world order whose familiar contours were gone. What were the decisive characteristics of the international system now that one of its formerly decisive characteristics, Soviet power, had vanished? What would the role of the United States be in this new system? What should the United States do in such a system? How much would America’s action stem from its liberal character as opposed to its global standing? How would others, moreover, respond to the post–Cold War transformation of the system and to the new position of the United States?
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay, “The End of History?” It offered one possible path: the universal acknowledgment of liberal order as the final answer to the question of how to organize society. There would be, he wrote, no more serious competitors on the field of global ideology.1 And as Fukuyama foretold, many nations came knocking loudly on the door of the liberal democracies in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s destruction, asserting a common identity and seeking access to its institutions. The countries of the former Warsaw Pact and many of the newly independent Soviet republics saw their best future in Western integration.
Others foresaw a very different post-Soviet world. Samuel Huntington responded to Fukuyama by prophesying “The Clash of Civilizations” in his landmark 1993 essay. Western civilization would be ill served, he wrote, by the assumption that its liberal principles were universal. The conflicts to come would not be, primarily, ideological or economic but cultural in origin.
If not civilizational clash, then perhaps classical Great Power rivalry would soon reassert itself. So the neorealist theorist John Mearsheimer predicted in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Why should the power and influence of the United States be immune to efforts from others to balance it? Perhaps a newly unified and stronger Europe would chafe under the American yoke and seek a path not in an ongoing alliance but as an independent actor and counterweight, as Charles Kupchan suggested in The End of the American Era. And perhaps, in any case, the Soviet pursuit of hegemony had less to do with Marxist ideology and more to do with old-style Russian imperial ambition, an ambition that would persist despite the fall of the Communist regime. China, having taken a decisive turn in the direction of a market economy, was surely on the rise, but would it be content to turn itself into a worldwide economic force that would at some point democratize and accept a position in the status quo of wealthy nations? Or would it seek to challenge and remake the international order in its own image, whatever that might be?
As it turned out, all these theoretical proposals were tested empirically, in the form of four real-world crises from the 1990s. Two served to reveal the extent of American power by its exercise, and two served to reveal the significance of American power in the world by the consequence of the failure to exercise it. Remarkably enough, those examples continue to reflect the conundrum of the American hegemon—peerless yet still capable of losing. And even more capable of defeating itself.
The first crisis came in 1990, when a broad coalition led by the United States drove Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, a country he had invaded and claimed as Iraq’s 19th province. The Gulf War was the first significant use of American military power since the Vietnam War. Although the coalition that President George H.W. Bush assembled was large, and numerous countries contributed military assets, U.S. capabilities far outstripped those of any other nation, and everyone knew it. American opponents of the war had issued dire warnings about the dangers the United States faced, including casualties in the tens of thousands. They were mistaken. The contest was entirely one-sided. A weeks-long campaign of aerial bombardment preceded a ground attack that lasted only 100 hours, culminating in a decision to halt the fighting rather than destroy Saddam’s retreating army on the so-called Highway of Death. Coalition forces took thousands of Iraqi prisoners and suffered fewer than 200 combat deaths.
The second crisis came in 1992, with the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. As the international community failed to mount an effective response, the catastrophe turned genocidal in Bosnia. The same Bush administration that had acted so effectively to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait declined to take a leading role in dealing with the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic and his Serb allies inside Bosnia. The United States, finding no compelling U.S. interests at stake—Secretary of State James A. Baker famously said the United States had “no dog in this fight”—deferred to the Europeans, who were unable to achieve results through diplomacy as the situation deteriorated and atrocities mounted. At last, in the summer of 1995, when most of the principal U.S. policymakers were vacationing, their deputies convened in Washington and planned an air campaign that ultimately halted a Bosnian Serb offensive and forced Milosevic to the bargaining table. The inescapable conclusion was that in the absence of the judicious application of American military power, diplomatic progress was impossible—and when that power was applied, the effects were swift and favorable.
The third crisis operated entirely in the negative, and took place during the period of ineffectual action in the former Yugoslavia. It was the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Within a span of 100 days, machete-wielding ethnic Hutus hacked more than 500,000 Tutsis to death. The United States, though well enough aware of the gathering danger in Rwanda and then of the unfolding horror itself, did nothing to intervene. A small UN force on the scene proved ineffectual in the face of the organized mob violence, and entreaties for additional assistance went unheeded. Perhaps feeling skittish following the “Black Hawk Down” episode in Somalia only a few months before (in which 18 American troops were killed by a mob), senior U.S. officials temporized, proffered excuses about the difficulty of taking action and the possibility of unforeseen adverse consequences, and pointed the finger elsewhere. In retrospect, it seems clear that intervention by the United States or the international community writ large could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. President Clinton would later apologize for U.S. inaction in Rwanda.
The fourth crisis returned us to Yugoslavia, this time to the then Serbian province of Kosovo, populated by Serbians and ethnic Albanians. Milosevic was determined to execute a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in response to the escalating strife there in 1998–99. The United States and its NATO partners issued an ultimatum demanding that Milosevic stand down. He ignored it, and NATO launched a bombing campaign to compel his compliance. Although it seems apparent that many officials expected Milosevic to capitulate quickly, he did not, and the campaign continued for weeks and then months, culminating in discussion of the possibility of introducing NATO ground troops (an unappealing prospect for the U.S. administration). Eventually, Milosevic caved. Once again, the United States achieved its war aims through the application of unmatchable military power at minimal risk to its service members—and did so, moreover, after reaping a post–Cold War “peace dividend” of shrinking military budgets during the previous decade. Earlier that year, Hubert Védrine, the French Foreign Minister, had coined the term “hyperpower” to describe the United States. The Kosovo campaign demonstrated the aptness of Védrine’s neologism.
The lessons drawn from these crises seemed to suggest that acting on principle was as important as acting with prudence—and that when prudence dictated a retreat from principle, the suffering that resulted would haunt us. Even now, it seems unlikely that the United States would have undertaken the first Gulf War in the absence of the strategic consideration of secure access to oil—but the war also served to vindicate a moral stand against the illegitimacy of territorial expansion by military aggression. The catastrophe in Rwanda was a lost opportunity for humanitarian intervention. The apparent lack of a U.S. national interest to justify intervening in an internal conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, and the subsequent regret about having done nothing, served to underscore the possibility that intervention for humanitarian purposes alone might not only be justifiable but wise. The experience in the former Yugoslavia made the same point both negatively and positively, in the unfolding disaster in the absence of intervention and in the positive results when military action finally took place.
So it was that the United States discovered the virtue of being the hyperpower. Its strength could prove decisive in shaping events. And the events being shaped could pertain not only to the raw pursuit of U.S. national interests, but also to the pursuit of humanitarian and moral purposes—moral purposes shared broadly enough internationally to allow the United States to enjoy wide support for intervention.
As the 20th century came to an end, international politics still included a number of bad actors and many states wary of the preponderant power of the United States. And certainly there were lines the United States would never think to cross, such as direct confrontation with Russia over the treatment of Chechnya or with China over the treatment of Tibet. It would have to remain prudent in avoiding direct confrontation with the few remaining nuclear powers that could put up a serious fight. An example of this sort of prudence came in early 2001. An American EP-3 surveillance aircraft had to make an emergency landing on Chinese territory after colliding midair with a Chinese fighter plane dispatched to intercept it. With tensions rising, the George W. Bush administration chose to de-escalate the confrontation with an ambiguous statement of apology.
At the time, it had become an axiom that American power could be effectively countered only by a nuclear threat. It was unsurprising, therefore, that the “rogue states” of the period, those that had drawn the disfavor of the United States and its allies, had entered into hot pursuit of nuclear weapons of their own. But there was little manifest will in the conventional state system to do something about American military power. To criticize it, yes; to deter it, perhaps; to balance it, no; to confront it, unthinkable.
Among nation-states, that is. What the United States learned on 9/11 was that not all threats come from states—that an international system essentially respectful of the United States as the world’s leading power can nevertheless harbor non-state actors, such as al-Qaeda, capable of inflicting serious damage.
The United States’ initial response to 9/11 was state-centered. Al-Qaeda operated out of Afghanistan, which was then under the control of the Taliban. So the United States issued an ultimatum to the Taliban government, and when it went unheeded, the United States acted to topple that government. Once again, critics warned that getting rid of the Taliban would be hugely costly, and perhaps impossible. Once again, the military performed brilliantly and the regime fell quickly.
A few months later, President Bush delivered a speech in which he spoke of an “axis of evil”—North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. This phrase was controversial at the time, and it has not aged well. It sought to conceptualize what would become the “global war on terror” in terms of an alignment of states against the United States and its allies. But there were no major points of connection between Iraq, North Korea, and Iran (at the time), let alone any party that saw itself as an axis against the United States. What the United States really had on its hands were three different problems, the most dangerous of which seemed to be Iraq, because of its supposed possession of chemical and biological weapons and its desire to build a nuclear weapon.
The George H.W. Bush administration had never seriously considered extending its 1991 offensive all the way to Baghdad to depose Saddam, though some had urged such a course and had continued to argue for “regime change” in Baghdad throughout the 1990s. This view obtained little policy purchase—until 9/11. The problem, it appeared, was not just a matter of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and his depredations against the Shiites and Kurds, but the nexus of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction to terrorist non-state actors. There was little doubt that al-Qaeda would try to hit the United States and other Western targets with anything the organization could get its hands on. For many, the absence of a prior close working relationship between Saddam and al-Qaeda offered insufficient reassurance going forward.
So the United States went to war against Iraq for a second time. This time, however, the coalition was smaller than in 1991–92, with several noteworthy absences, France and Germany chief among them. The all-but-unanimous support among liberal governments for removing Saddam from Kuwait fractured seriously over the necessity and desirability of removing Saddam from power for preventive purposes. Again, many critics stressed what they saw as the likely military difficulty of deposing Saddam and the possibility of extensive casualties, especially if he resorted to using the chemical weapons he was thought to possess. Again, the regime fell quickly. And then the trouble began.
There was little debate in Washington’s policy circles about what should succeed Saddam’s regime: a democratic, pluralist, rights-regarding government. It would not be acceptable simply to find another Baathist general and put him in charge of the country after giving him a stern warning against the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
Some have claimed that George W. Bush went to war in order to bring democracy to the Middle East. That is unquestionably a post-hoc revision, an effort to reframe the war’s justification once caches of genocidal weapons turned out not to exist. But it is certainly true that Bush had a view of freedom and its political progeny, local democracy, as a universal human desire, implanted by a loving creator-God. His second inaugural address in 2005 left no doubt on the point.
Some proponents of the Iraq war suggested that Iraqis would welcome the American troops as liberators. The premise behind the prediction was simple. Iraqi society was in theory latently liberal, especially after decades of living under a monstrous tyranny; all that was required for its liberalism to flourish was the removal of its noxious regime. The notorious lack of planning for the occupation was not just a failure of the interagency process: It was inherent in the proposition that a liberal occupying power could create a liberal government by liberal means, whose success turns out to presuppose a liberal society. In the absence of a liberal society, it’s not clear that any liberal plan can work.
It seems likely that Bush’s thinking was under the influence of recent historical experience—the stunning transformation of all the nations of the former Warsaw Pact as well as the newly independent Baltic states into reasonably well-functioning democracies once the shackles of Soviet influence came off. The prevailing view within the administration and the foreign-policy establishment in Washington was that planting democracy in Iraq would be a challenge, but a manageable and necessary one. Afghanistan was an even bigger problem on the question of a successor regime, since the country had been ravaged by war for more than a generation. But at a minimum, its new government should be more participatory and proffer such public goods as schooling for girls.
The Bush administration soon enough abandoned its state-centric, “with us or with the terrorists,” “axis of evil” animadversions in favor of a conception of a “global war on terror.” This, too, was controversial, but it had the virtue of recognizing that the problem was not so much state sponsorship of terror as terrorists’ finding opportunities to organize themselves in poorly governed territories and weak or failed states, emphatically including post-Saddam Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan. Insurgencies sprang forth and gained force in both places against the new American-backed regimes, which themselves fell vastly short of American aspirations. The United States military eventually developed a new competence in counterinsurgency warfare, but the gains were hard-won, and there was no desire to apply the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan elsewhere and get the aftermath right.
“Regime change,” an expression that has fallen out of favor, has two components: out with the old, in with the new. It turns out that removing an offending regime is much easier than “standing up” a new, liberal regime in its stead. American power can achieve extraordinary results by the standard of the capabilities of any previous military. But it is unsuited to the task of remaking societies into liberal democracies in the absence of decades-long commitments.
It has proved simpler just to abandon the effort. In this regard, our most recent military adventure was instructive: In Libya, the United States and its NATO allies made the decisive difference in the ability of rebels to overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. One U.S. official famously told a journalist anonymously that U.S. action against Qaddafi was an exercise in “leading from behind.” Many critics of the Obama administration seized on the phrase as evidence of an abdication of leadership. Yet the United States in fact got exactly what it wanted from a military campaign, one to which its forces were indispensable. The efforts of the British and French governments, the leading advocates of intervention, would have been unavailing in the absence of political will in the U.S. government.
But after Qaddafi’s downfall, the United States and NATO did not do much of anything with regard to the aftermath. They left the matter almost entirely to Libyans. Although U.S. intelligence assets no doubt played a role, there would be no “boots on the ground.” The result of our covert engagement—including the slaying of the American ambassador in Benghazi and the migration of weapons to al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Mali—can hardly be called successful. And in Syria, with scores of thousands dead, we are back to doing nothing.
What’s next? Sincerely or not, the Obama administration has lately been emphasizing its willingness to use American military power if necessary to prevent the Iranian regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Now, if there is a military campaign, it is likely (at least at first) to be focused narrowly on targeting the Iranian nuclear program. Its objective is unlikely to include the downfall of the Tehran regime. But if the regime does fall, no one, for better or worse, is talking about any kind of American role on the ground in shaping its successor. Destructive power remains useful to the United States. And of course military power doesn’t have to be put to use to be of use: Deterring the undesirable actions of others is a huge component of its utility. But there’s no longer a link between the large-scale application of military power and the pursuit of liberal outcomes in the aftermath of its exercise.
In 2009, the Obama administration quietly embraced many of the practices of the Bush administration in the “global war on terror,” now called by a different name (or rather, no name). This seemed tacit acknowledgment that the U.S. government understood itself as the locus of liberal power in an international system that was disinclined to challenge its liberalism and its might—while being plagued by a number of non-state actors who were committed to challenging its liberalism and might. The United States understood that it would still face challenges of potentially extreme danger from actors without a distinct return address—terrorist groups and insurgents, of course, but also anonymous cyber attackers, perhaps facilitated by the covert capabilities of governments unwilling to challenge the United States openly. The disposition to deal with problem states by airpower and covert action rather than large armies, to deal with terrorists by drone strikes, and to disengage U.S. “boots on the ground” in favor of letting the locals sort matters out for themselves—these are the practical consequences of President Obama’s May 2012 statement that “after more than a decade of war, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
There is no evidence, either from recent history or history from time immemorial, that the power at the center of world order can turn its attention inward without jeopardizing that order. In the case of the United States, that includes jeopardizing such liberal moral principles as the imperative to prevent genocide and mass atrocities. Yet the hyperpower today is moody, out of sorts, uncertain, depressed—and the disorder is growing.
1 Fukuyama himself acknowledged that elements within Islam had such ambitions, but he found their capacity to mount a serious challenge to be wanting.