Learning from Iraq

Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition by Robert W. Merry (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $26.00)

Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq by Larry Diamond (Times Books, 369 pages, $25.00)

As the insurgency rages on in Iraq and the costs in American blood and treasure grow, the debate continues at home about the war and America's role in the world. These two new books plunge into that debate, drawing lessons from Iraq about the dangers of misusing American power. Robert W. Merry's Sands of Empire offers a broad philosophical context for the Iraq War, warning against President George W. Bush's missionary zeal in spreading democracy. Unfortunately, Merry's answer is for the United States to withdraw from the world beyond Europe. In contrast, Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory examines America's many mistakes in Iraq but defends a strong international role for the United States in promoting democracy.

Both books show how the Bush administration has been blinded by an unrealistic belief in American omnipotence. U.S. policy over the last four years, particularly in Iraq, has been driven by the false confidence that, as the lone superpower, the United States can bend the world to its will, largely on its own and primarily by military means. Ironically, the Superpower Myth has made the burden of power heavier. The United States has been led into a position where it now confronts the insurgency in Iraq without allies and finds it harder to build coalitions to counter threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Our security depends on international cooperation, but the past four years have seen anti-Americanism rise to unprecedented levels. Majorities across Europe, even in Great Britain, do not believe that the United States is acting in their interest. And, worse, majorities in seven out of eight Muslim countries say that the United States is a threat. These beliefs are wrong, but as long as people hold them, they will be reluctant to join us in the war on terrorism. America needs to become again the great persuader, not just the big enforcer.

The Iraq War and its aftermath provide a case study in the perils of the Superpower Myth, and here Diamond's vivid, passionate, and fascinating firsthand account of the postwar effort in Iraq is immensely instructive. The mismanagement that has plagued American efforts stemmed originally from the premise that the United States could single-handedly win a war, bring peace, and instill democracy in Iraq, all with a limited commitment of troops and sketchy postwar preparations. Had the Bush administration stepped back from its own ideological fixations, Diamond believes, the results could have been far better.

Sadly, Iraqis and American troops are paying the price for the administration's hubris. In contrast to the Balkans, where only one out of every nine foreign soldiers comes from the United States, nearly nine out of 10 in Iraq are American. Hundreds of billions of dollars have already been spent, with more than 1,600 dead and no end in sight. The U.S. military is bogged down in the country for years to come, until there is an Iraqi force capable of securing the situation. The administration's misjudgment of the Sunni minority population in Iraq was particularly costly, and the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and beyond have gravely tarnished this country's image.

The mistakes of the past four years go well beyond Iraq. Rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, sidelining the United Nations, arrogantly dismissing the “old Europe,” and undermining arms-control agreements have made America's allies wary of our policies and power. For four years, we have ignored the backsliding from democracy in Russia, failed to make democracy a priority in Pakistan, and undermined the principle of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean by supporting movements to overthrow elected leaders in Venezuela and Haiti. We did little to prevent Iran or North Korea from seeking nuclear weapons.

As President Bush develops his second-term agenda, there are signs that he is moving away from the radical tactics of his first term and toward a more realistic foreign policy. The ideologues are moving out of the State Department and the career realists are moving back in. John Bolton should have been sent home, but at the United Nations he will not be in a policy-making role, as the administration has stripped that post of its cabinet rank and seat in the inner circle of national-security policy making. In a dramatic turnabout at the UN Security Council this March, the administration let pass a referral on the situation in Sudan to the International Criminal Court -- an institution the Bush administration earlier treated essentially as the fourth leg of the “axis of evil.”

Gone is the dismissal of “old Europe” in favor of a newfound emphasis on trans-Atlantic cooperation. Although Bolton's favorite line as undersecretary of arms control was, “I don't do carrots,” the administration has recently shifted course and agreed to work constructively with European partners on a carrot-and-stick approach that may resolve the impasse with Iran. Whether these shifts will turn into a fundamentally new approach by the administration remains to be seen. The ideologues, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, still have great influence.

As both the administration and its critics seek to define a better use of American power, they ought to reject the view that we face a clash of civilizations, the underlying theory of Merry's new book. Merry wants America to move away from its “heady new role as Crusader State” and to focus instead on uniting the West through diplomacy, maintaining internal security and intelligence capabilities, and preventing “at all costs key Muslim countries from being engulfed by Islamist radicalism.” He borders on racism when he writes, for example, about “holding down Muslim population growth at a time when America and the West are locked in a civilization war with global Islamist radicalism.” On preventing the spread of Islamic radicalism, he offers little constructive guidance.

Instead of attempting to hold other civilizations at bay, as Merry wants, we ought to be following a policy of tough engagement. By that I mean building global coalitions to combat terrorism and nuclear proliferation, using sanctions and force when necessary. We need to consult allies, not because it's the nice thing to do but because it's the smart thing to do.

The most urgent challenge now is the threat from weapons of mass destruction, but over the last four years the United States has undermined the very instruments that have kept such weapons away from terrorists, including the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Rather than pushing for nuclear disarmament, the administration is talking up new types of weapons and cutting the budget of the program designed to secure the 60 percent of weapons in the former Soviet Union that remain terrifyingly insecure. Bush is right to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran, but will need to work harder to get Europe and others behind his new approach.

The biggest shift will need to come on North Korea, where the administration has steadfastly refused to negotiate or put a realistic proposal on the table, preferring that China take the lead. While there are no good options regarding North Korea, we have to try to negotiate a new deal that puts the nuclear genie back in the bottle. North Korea will certainly try to cheat, but international oversight can help ensure that we catch them again. The current dangerous, do-nothing policy cannot continue.

Presidents often overreach and falter in their second terms, but if Bush now turns toward greater realism in foreign affairs, he has the chance for historic progress. It won't make up for the mistakes of his first term, but we should welcome the shift.

Nancy E. Soderberg is the author of The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of Military Might. She served as an ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.