The Big Picture on the Long War

Amidst the signs of progress in Iraq, two cautionary notes: despite the Maliki government’s solidification of its hold on power by military means, very few of the major political challenges to national reconciliation have been addressed, let alone solved; and the security gains of the past year have now exerted a “push me-pull you” pressure on Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes, which have either been appropriated or walled off behind sectarian lines. In other words, having returned the security situation to what resembles a frozen civil war (or a tenuous and sporadically violated ceasefire), we’re now confronted with the difficult, costly and lengthy challenges of nation-building.

Which brings us to Andrew Bacevich’s LA Times op-ed (via AM’s Dr. iRack), which calls into question the broader context of the “Long War.” In essence, Bacevich argues that in setting out to change the world, we’ve weakened ourselves from within. Now, if we don’t rein in our own profligacy and hubris, we’ll no longer have the luxury to engage in nation-building abroad. It’s a convincing argument, if only for the fact that we’re better at national renewal than we are at international transformation. And it’s one worth considering, given that somehow the Iraq War seems to have had little impact on the instinctive reflex in some circles to reach for American military power when faced with a thorny problem, whether it be Iran’s nuclear program or humanitarian crises in Burma and Darfur. Add to that the fact that the U.S. Army is retooling in the image of a counterinsurgency force adapted to stabilization and reconstruction operations, and Bacevich’s assessment becomes pretty dire.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America understandably confused a security threat with a national security threat; a threat to Americans was mistaken for a threat to America. But it also confused the calculus of the terrorist threat for a zero sum game. The impact of the Iraq War (which having been wrongly folded into the “Long War” narrative must now be included in its assessment) has demonstrated that America can both weaken al-Qaida and itself at the same time. That is, in the War on Terrorism, both we and the terrorists can lose.

That Iraq also demonstrates the limits of America’s ability to mold societies in our own image is even more reason for a sober reassessment of the interventionist urge. The way things are shaping up around the world, there will be plenty of situations where we’ll be tempted (perhaps even required) to apply the military lessons we’ve learned in Iraq in other countries, under other circumstances. But unless we integrate the political lessons we’ve learned in Iraq first, we’re likely to meet with the same frustrating results.

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