The future of American power

I found this post by Suzanne Nossel at Democracy Arsenal fascinating, in that it is a fair, reasonable critique of the Iraq War that does not indict the very idea of the US using its power in support of its values abroad.

I particularly like her points “the US Military has limits” and “military power can’t accomplish everything.” Both seem self-evident, and yet in some circles these points may well be controversial. It is essential that conservatives scale back their triumphalist rhetoric — as noted by Jacob Weisberg in his response to AEI’s 2007 banquet (aka the neocon prom) — and begin to acknowledge the limits of American power. It doesn’t mean embracing isolationism: it means acknowledging that the use of force abroad has unintended consequences that must be taken into account when making policy, that regardless of American ideals and good intentions negative consequences may still result from intervention abroad. It doesn’t mean retreating: it means that American policymakers must be prudent in considering how best to apply American power.

I was led to think this in part after seeing Charles Krauthammer’s speech at the 2004 AEI banquet, in which he spoke of American power as if the previous year’s difficulties in Iraq had never happened. Francis Fukuyama, in attendance at the banquet, had the same response, resulting in his supposed “break” with his fellow neoconservatives, played out in the pages of The National Interest and culminating in his book America at the Crossroads, in which he cites Krauthammer’s speech as an important moment leading him to reconsider his ideas.

The American foreign policy establishment must continue to reassess the tools available in the foreign policy toolbox, in the process de-prioritizing the use of force as a means of achieving US foreign policy goals. Force is a blunt tool, the use of which has numerous unforeseen consequences. The work of building a new “new world order,” in which the US Military plays quieter, less visible but still important roles, will require greater nimbleness and flexibility on the part of the US government in its relations with allies and rivals. It’s a tragedy that it took disaster in Iraq for the adjustment to begin, but it has begun in earnest.

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