Paul Kennedy: Can America afford victory at any cost?

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The Independent Online

The world has been looking back this past week to the events of September 11, to the twin towers, the Pentagon, the field in Pennsylvania, al-Qa'ida. Meanwhile, another anniversary - different yet related - also merits our reflection, for it was almost one year ago that the Bush administration issued its now-famous document titled "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America". It was intended to be a clear and comprehensive statement of America's post-Cold War, post-9/11 world policy, something that would anticipate future challenges and meet all contingencies. Twelve months later - one of the most turbulent 12 months in modern history - seems a good time for a provisional assessment.

The National Security Strategy was in parts surprisingly holistic, given the prevalent view in the world media that the Bush administration had a narrow, unilateralist and military agenda. It talked of urgent global trends, such as environmental damage, demographic and migratory pressures, deepening poverty and human rights failures. And it paid tribute to the need to work with and through international organisations to address those crises.

But if the past year is any indicator, one would have to conclude that the document is more a rhetorical device than a serious commitment to action. There is, to be sure, the welcome request by the White House for billions of additional dollars to combat Aids in Africa (a sum that Congress will gut); and it is also true that the United States is now paying its annually assessed United Nations contribution. Yet both the Bush administration and Congress remain neurotically suspicious of any international accord, agency or operation that might hamper America's precious "sovereignty". And its contributions to overseas development aid, as a percentage of gross national product, remain the lowest of all the advanced countries. The National Security Strategy "music score" may offer a one-world melody, but the national band is playing a different tune.

America, of course, is not the only country whose government says one thing and does another. If we were to create a Global Hypocrisy Index the US would probably be only halfway up the scale, well below China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Libya, North Korea and others. Alas, it is unfortunate that the world's greatest power exhibits such a conspicuous divergence of word and action, and especially regrettable when its president proclaims that the "American way" is the best model for national success. Anyone familiar with Machiavelli and other realists (Bismarck or Kissinger, for example) will know that such claims are a common failing. Great powers must often commit nasty deeds and make awkward compromises.

Other aspects of the National Security Strategy look much more questionable. First is the assertion that the United States intends to keep so far ahead of any likely rival for world hegemony that it would be folly for another nation even to consider making the challenge. Since no other nation or political entity can afford to spend $400bn (£260bn) a year on military forces, as America does, its enemies and rivals will resort to asymmetrical means of aggression. The al-Qa'ida attacks of 2001, and the hit-and-run ambushes of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, are obvious examples. The more the Pentagon pumps money into new fighter-bombers, the more its foes will opt for shadowy, irregular warfare. And while the rising powers of China and India may not seek to fight the United States on the high seas, they may - if driven by resentment of US hegemony - feel the need to develop more sophisticated medium- and long-range missile systems to deny American fleets the ability to approach Asian shores. In a few years, the hegemony will have to think carefully about putting a carrier battle group close to the Taiwan Straits. More money does not always buy more security.

Another questionable aspect of the National Security Strategy document is its confident assertion that the United States will take pre-emptive action, wherever necessary, to crush perceived foreign threats (though it warns other nations not to use pre-emption themselves). Leaving aside the dubious status of the doctrine in international law, such a strategy is, practically speaking, difficult to get right - and very easy to get wrong. The Anglo-American attack upon Iraq is a case in point. The US government, bogged down in guerrilla warfare across Iraq, is now trying to persuade other nations to help pacify and rebuild that shattered country. Going it alone, acting pre-emptively, choosing a military solution over a diplomatic one, all look more and more like the shaky stratagems of a country intent on maintaining its privileged position in world affairs. Less hubris and more patience might be a better mix.

Finally, there is the problem of victory "at any cost". After the war began, Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, said Iraq would finance its own reconstruction, and relatively quickly. How ironic that statement now rings. President Bush has announced that he will ask Congress for an extra $87bn to fund civil reconstruction and military security in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Such massive funding will add to the frightening gap between federal income and expenditures, and will give the Democratic Party, hitherto so cowed, a chance to attack the imperial leader. This vulnerability explains the reluctant decision to return the Iraq affair to the UN Security Council in the hopes of obtaining donors and forces from the likes of Germany, Russia, France and India.

In sum, the National Security Strategy is not doing well. It has bumped into reality. No one of goodwill wishes harm upon the US forces and their allies in Iraq, and everyone surely wants democracy, prosperity and peace to come to that troubled land. There are evildoers who seek to frustrate those aims, and they need to be defeated. But the pre-invasion warnings are proving true. President Bush's Iraq gamble has turned into bondage in Baghdad.

September 11 has been commemorated with dignity and grace and resolve. But that does not absolve us from the sharpest scrutiny of those who assured us that they had a road map and a grand strategy that would carry America safely through the 21st century.

Paul Kennedy is Dilworth Professor of History at Yale University and author of 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers' © 2003, Tribune Media Services International

Alan Watkins is away