The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Shooting yourself in the foot

July 19, 2006

It would appear that many conservatives have finally grown weary enough of the administration’s approach to foreign policy that they are beginning to make themselves heard. I agree with them on the basic point—the Iraq campaign made the US weaker and demonstrates that everyday. From the Washington Post:

“Conservatives complain that the United States is hunkered down in Iraq without enough troops or a strategy to crush the insurgency. They see autocrats in Egypt and Russia cracking down on dissenters with scant comment from Washington, North Korea firing missiles without consequence, and Iran playing for time to develop nuclear weapons while the Bush administration engages in fruitless diplomacy with European allies. They believe that a perception that the administration is weak and without options is emboldening Syria and Iran and the Hezbollah radicals they help sponsor in Lebanon.”

All the neo-con crap about appeasement I disagree with, as my previous posts should make apparent. It isn’t a lack of will that is causing the administration to tread more carefully—it is a lack of capability due to Iraq. Neo-con enthusiasts don’t seem to get this very important point–our inability to be ‘tougher’ at the moment stems from the conflict they championed. Many would call that shooting yourself in the foot. A little foresight and caution would have gone a long way.

First, there were more pressing problems internationally than Iraq in 2003. We were already aware of how much closer North Korea was to developing both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them (well, the means aren’t there yet—but moving on…). Given the ripple effects that are nuclear capable DPRK could cause in their region combined with their propensity to sell whatever they develop in order to keep the lights on one would think North Korea a more pressing issue than Iraq.

Second, Afghanistan remains an unfinished project. Since we are so worried about failed-states (and rightly so) one would think the prudent thing to do would be to finish the job we started in Afghanistan and to do so more earnestly than we have to-date. Again, that takes dedication, focus, and resources–all of which where diverted to Iraq.

Finally, analysts aren’t psychics. However they can see a bit into the future and imagine scenarios that might require the attention of the United States. Other than in the event of total war leaders should take care to leave themselves some slack, some flexibility to so that if they have to react to an emerging crisis they can. When you stretch yourself thin on one, narrow campaign that is not a matter of life or death you leave yourself weaker strategically (or, at the very least, project the image of weakness to adversaries).

I am glad people are begining to come around to the idea that Iraq was a bad idea for strategic reasons, even if I disagree with some of the more specific complaints by certain crowds. Leading powers typically aren’t defeated by other states. Rather, they have this incredible propensity to defeat themselves through overstretch and a lack of humility. Here’s to hoping we don’t suffer the same fate.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.