If an historic shift—the decline of the U.S.—is unfolding before our eyes, then the double scandal of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan followed by the scandal of the recession will be seen as key pieces of evidence. But…just as those events constituted failures of leadership rather than external accidents, good leadership could avoid the decline they point to.
It is very easy to offer the double military debacle of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of the decline of the U.S. Indeed, it is evidence, and strong evidence at that. But that of course does not prove that the U.S. decline is, so far, more than a “bad decade” that could be overcome by an educated and determined population led by a responsible national leadership aware of the mistakes of its predecessors. Stephen Walt neatly spells out this all-important caveat:
The good news, however, is the defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan — and make no mistake, that is what it is — tells us relatively little about America’s overall power position or its ability to shape events that matter elsewhere in the world. Remember that the United States lost the Vietnam War too, but getting out facilitated the 1970s rapprochement with China and ultimately strengthened our overall position in Asia. Fourteen years later, the USSR had collapsed and the United States had won the Cold War. Nor should anyone draw dubious lessons about U.S. resolve; to the contrary, both of these wars show that the United States is actually willing to fight for a long time under difficult conditions. Thus, the mere fact that we failed in Iraq and Afghanistan does not by itself herald further U.S. decline, provided we make better decisions going forward.
What lessons should we be learning from the Iraqi and Afghan wars?
- Don’t deify your enemies.
- If the enemy is a gang, war against states is the wrong strategic response.
- If the problem is social, a military solution will make things worse.
- We can’t do everything.
- Even if we can do everything, we can’t do everything without sacrifice.
- Foreign policy and domestic policy are linked, and a strong society—workers gainfully employed, people living within their means—forms the basis for an effective foreign policy.
- Breaking our own laws, ignoring our own principles, and undermining our constitution do not strengthen our position.
- Our ignorance of the rest of the world and of the actual behavior of our government and corporations overseas makes it very easy for enemies to set traps and sucker us into voluntarily stepping into them.
- The military card is most effective when available but never played.
- Never trust American leaders: they harm Americans far more than our foreign enemies do.
- Most enemies of the U.S. are more like hornets after you throw a rock at their nest: their hostility did not come out of the blue.
- Learn some history.
Evidence that either voters or leaders in the U.S. have learned any of these lessons is, unfortunately, hard to find.
Whitewashing U.S. Behavior
Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations recently called for improving our “message” to Muslims. Focusing on the idea that our problem lies in our message rather than our behavior exemplifies the failure to learn the fundamental lessons of 9/11. Empire-building, supporting Israeli rightwing expansionists, and–yes–taking the oil are what they don’t like.