In his classic treatise On War, the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz argued that the decision to go to war is the most important act of statecraft, and should be made rationally after calculating the potential gains against the likely costs and consequences. The Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq would not have received Clausewitz’s stamp of approval, because the White House seems in denial that even a war that culminates relatively swiftly in victory is almost certain to trigger a series of extremely negative consequences for the U.S.
If things do go wrong in the war’s aftermath, the administration will bear a heavy burden of responsibility, because this was an “elective war,” not a mandatory one. George W. Bush never made a coherent, logical and persuasive case for war — not even to many of us who are Republicans.
What negative consequences will this war bring to the United States? By running roughshod over the U.N. and NATO, the administration has undermined two of the pillars on which the post–World War II international order rested. The administration’s policy has caused a probably irreparable breach in U.S. relations with France and Germany, the two most powerful nations on the European continent (and of far more consequence in the global balance than the so-called New Europe of Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic). And its policy also has antagonized Russia and China.
Washington’s reaction no doubt will be to say, “So what?” The administration’s policy has revealed the United States before the world as an aggressive hegemon engaged in the naked aggrandizement of its own power. Historically, hegemons — countries that dominate the world stage — inspire fear in other states, because their overwhelming — and overweening — power and ambition make others feel insecure. That is why such unilateral powers are always eventually defeated by counterbalancing coalitions — other states come together to create countervailing power against them. Now, clearly the administration feels that the U.S. enjoys an exemption from history and that “It can’t happen to us.”
History, however, is filled with cautionary tales. At the height of its power in the mid-1890s, Britain suddenly found all of Europe arrayed against it. London’s policy of “splendid isolation” was not at all splendid. As one prominent British commentator said of Britain’s plight, “We have no friends, and no nation loves us.”
Will the United States, then, be left completely alone in the post-Iraq world? Will counterbalancing coalitions spring immediately into existence? The answer to both questions is no. The U.S. will find itself increasingly isolated and the target of opposing coalitions. American policymakers should be worried that the run-up to this war saw the first sustained attempt since the Cold War to engage in “soft” balancing against the U.S. by using international institutions and diplomacy to restrain American power. France, Germany, Russia and China are beginning to learn how to cooperate in opposition to U.S. policies. And that does not augur well for the future because, over time, soft balancing will lead to “hard” balancing — balancing by countervailing military power — against the U.S.
It’s also a pretty safe bet that the war will destabilize the Middle East, which will lead to an upsurge of terrorism. If the administration had wanted to use military power against states that harbor al Qaeda or contribute (wittingly or not) to sustaining it, the real problems are Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia — and, of course, Afghanistan, where America’s victory is worryingly incomplete. By going to war with Iraq, the administration took its eye off the ball.
Worse, a U.S.-led occupation of Iraq is going to stir up a hornet’s nest in the Middle East. And not just from al Qaeda. Palestinian Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin urged Muslims everywhere to retaliate violently — against America, Israel and Europe — if the United States attacked Iraq. The war will provoke freelance terrorism by “amateurs” motivated by anti-American, pro-Islamic zeal.
As the wisest of American philosophers, Yogi Berra, observed, “Making predictions is hard, especially about the future.” The administration has sought to have it both ways on Iraq, simultaneously portraying Iraq as a deadly threat that must be stopped now while also claiming that Iraq’s military is so feeble — and Saddam Hussein’s regime so brittle — that with just a brief jolt of the U.S. military’s style of “shock and awe,” Iraqi resistance will collapse and Saddam will be overthrown. If the administration’s strategists are correct, the postwar mess the U.S. will face will still be daunting but — at least in Iraq itself — manageable.
But there is another equally plausible scenario. First, Saddam Hussein’s routed army will follow a scorched-earth policy by destroying Iraq’s oil fields as well as its infrastructure (or more correctly, whatever is left of it after the Iraqis have been shocked and awed). Second, the Iraqis may not throw down their arms. A sizable number of elite units may fight — not in the desert like last time (where they were helpless targets of U.S. air superiority) but in Baghdad and other major cities (where America’s advantages in high-tech warfare will be neutralized substantially).
There is a real possibility that when the war ends, the U.S. will be left occupying a devastated nation. A nation short on food, medicine, water and fuel. A nation whose transportation and energy infrastructure has been crippled. A nation facing a public-health crisis, especially in Baghdad where the sewage-treatment facilities will be knocked out of commission (either as a direct result of the fighting or because of losing their electrical supply). And then, of course, there will be refugees, probably several million — all of whom will need food, shelter and medical attention. And the more widespread the destruction — regardless of whether it is caused by Saddam Hussein or by the United States — the longer it will take to rebuild Iraq, and at greater expense. The wishful thinking of administration defenders notwithstanding, the Europeans are not likely to pay for cleaning up the mess caused by a war of which they did not approve. America will “own” postwar Iraq, and it will be America’s responsibility to put the Iraqi Humpty-Dumpty back together again.
Many administration officials vow the U.S. is going to “democratize” Iraq and turn it into a model for the rest of the region. Doubtful. Iraq has zero experience with democracy or even constitutional government. The fact that Iraq always has been ruled by repressive regimes reflects its own internal religious and ethnic divisions. The minority Sunni sect is predominant in Iraq and rules over restless Kurds (who want their own national state, which would encompass parts of Iran, Turkey and Iraq), and minority Shiite Muslims, who are sympathetic to Iran.
The war could well result in Iraq’s splintering, with Turkey moving into the northern part of the country to settle scores with the Kurds and to fulfill its aims of historical retribution (Iraq was severed from the Ottoman Empire by the World War I victors), and Iran will seek predominant political influence (if not outright annexation) of southern Iraq.
In addition, a U.S. military presence will bring American power to the very border of Iran — a charter member of the “axis of evil” and a state moving to acquire its own nuclear weapons. Tehran has no love for Saddam Hussein, but Iranian leaders have made it clear that they have even less love for American power on their border.
In postwar Iraq, the United States will inherit a mess. Victory over Iraq will not noticeably enhance America’s security, and in some ways — by stimulating more terrorism — it will make the U.S. even less secure. And defeating Iraq won’t do anything to solve the truly dangerous threat posed by North Korea — which, unlike Iraq, actually has both nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them to U.S. territory. This is the wrong war, at the wrong place, against the wrong enemy. And America will pay a price. Those of us who are Republicans can only regret that the GOP — and its foreign policy — have been hijacked by a crew of neoconservatives who hold hegemonic and imperial ambitions for the United States. Their crusading zeal and reckless indifference to the prudent principles of foreign-policy realism have led the United States into a morass from which it will be difficult for us to extricate ourselves.
Christopher Layne is a visiting fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.