This essay is excerpted from GABRIEL KOLKO’s important new book, The Age of War.
Like all warring nations before it, reality for the United States is totally different than its theories and expectations. Whether there is war or peace is now dependent on what happens in Washington; how America deals with its mounting frustrations and dilemmas will decide the future of much of the entire world.
Sooner or later, reality has always been an antidote for dreamers since time immemorial, but dreamers with illusions have gravely harmed the world repeatedly because realism follows rather than precedes armed conflicts and disastrous failures. But never before was there such destructive weaponry in so many hands. War and peace is more important to mankind’s future than ever, and to a very great extent that issue is increasingly dependent on what the U. S. does or does not do.
Doctrinally, there is no constraint on American action; indeed, the Bush Administration only finely honed all the reasons for taking initiatives that were articulated before 2001 and taken them to their logical conclusion: it believes passionately in action. But war in Iraq again confirmed what Korea and certainly Vietnam had revealed much earlier: militarily and politically, the American way of making war is no better than those the Germans or French, English or Russians, had undertaken before them. War simply does not resolve problems between nations, whatever they may be, and those that attempt it invariably end up far worse than when they began, and unforeseen complications create crises it may never resolve. Wars have profoundly and increasingly scarred the human condition for centuries.
The war the United States chose to fight in Iraq after March 2003 only reiterates these truisms, but the war there, like most before it, went badly from the inception. It is also incredibly costly and there are limits to America’s budget deficits, including the willingness of foreigners to hold dollars. During 2003, the forthcoming presidential election in November 2004 inhibited further adventures but so too was the fact that the American military was overextended and had few resources to fight with. Iraq was supposed to be a short war but now it was protracted and expensive in both manpower and money. Alliances were crumbling and the most powerful nations, save the United Kingdom, rejected the war from the inception, plans for reforming the American military were in abeyance, and the goals and doctrines the Bush Administration had at its inception, and retained after September 11, were in tatters. Something went wrong for it, as it has for virtually every ambitious warring nation before it: there are countless surprises.
Doctrinally, Bush’s notion of preemption still existed, even ignoring that it was more a description of the conduct of American foreign policy since at least the beginning of the 20th century than an original strategy. There were other aspects to his more lofty utterances, such as democratizing most of the Middle East if not all of it, stamping out terrorism, unilateral American action when necessary, and the like, all underpinned by the illusion that its ambitious goals were honorable and U.S. power was unlimited. But the legitimacy of preemption depended at home and abroad on getting facts right and accepting the best evidence possible on the nature of reality. Iraq’s utter lack of WMD showed the U.S. in the worst possible light, its credibility was zero, as was the astounding notion-floated in late 2004-that action was justified if a nation merely thought of or intended to get such weapons in the future. The capriciousness of such thinking showed how unpredictable, threatening, and dangerous the U.S. had become, its choice of enemies arbitrary. It is a rogue nation-out of control. The net effect of American bellicosity for members of the “axis of evil,” including the those who feared future inclusion in it, was to convince them that safety was to be found in building a nuclear deterrent. Compared to the period before 1990, it is far easier and cheaper to obtain them.
Intelligence has never been the basis of any great nation’s foreign policy, and accurate information was ignored if it failed to reinforce what political and military leaders wish to hear. The U.S. is scarcely alone in this regard. There are situations in which information may impose constraints on options, but these are overwhelmingly tactical rather than strategic choices. There are also times when accurate information is utterly ignored even tactically, involving timing or clarity in the minds of decision-makers, and this relatively rare condition probably exists among a great many in Washington at the present moment. Then important people prefer to deceive themselves, and they surround themselves with sycophants who confirm the wisdom of their profound illusions and ignorance. Analytically, we do not often know who is deliberately issuing falsehoods-there are surely some who do this as a matter of routine– and who is deluding themselves, much less who is doing both. Motives are difficult to fathom. But history is replete with individuals who leave us bewildered as to what they truly believe as opposed to cynically manipulate opinion to achieve and hold power.
Intelligence is, by and large if not wholly, constrained by a larger structural and ideological environment and foreign policies generally foredoom efforts to base actions on informed insights. Even when knowledge is far greater than ignorance there are decisive boundaries to its role. Wars have afflicted the world again and again for centuries precisely because blindness and stupidity is combined with spurious ideas and the irresponsibility which power allows. Americans have never been alone in this myopia, which is nigh on universal, and the Bush Administration was not much different-if at all-than most of those that preceded it. CIA directors are often political appointees with their own agendas. The press reports what it is told and is usually reverential of leaks coming from the White House, but ultimately the problem is far less information than policy. What is different is the world is far more dangerous than it was 50 years ago and destructive weapons more universally distributed than at any time in history. The consequences of doing the wrong thing make truth that much more precious.
Intelligence, in the sense of accurate information about specific topics, can become inaccurate because of policy predilections but also because there is too much of it and one is therefore free to believe what one wishes. The bad and good, or irrelevant, are all mixed together. In fact, American intelligence agencies have some very keen people working for them, and they often know a great deal about their topics. The U.S. spent at least $200 billion on signal intelligence from super-secret satellites after creating the National Reconnaissance Office in 1961. The NRO picked up everything and overstuffed the intelligence systems, allowing senior analysts to support their politically correct evaluations with all kinds of data-which in Iraq’s case of WMD, to cite but one of many examples, turned out to be completely inaccurate and at total odds with an immense amount of publicly available information. Allies abandoned the U.S., its credibility has fallen immeasurably, and the doctrine of preemption is simply another reason for aggression rather than what Bush claimed he intended it to be-forestalling real rather than imaginary threats. The real danger confronting any nation, especially the U.S., is the belief that it is strong when it is not, and maintaining a faith in the power of weapons and technology when they are in fact wholly irrelevant-or even defective.
This was surely the moral of the Vietnam War, which the U.S. fought more than a decade, investing tremendous resources and manpower in it, and lost completely. That lesson is now being relearned in Iraq on a daily basis.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book, The Age of War, was published in March 2006.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.