Neither the American people nor even the American foreign policy elite, it seems to me, have ever been very good at facing international realities. For much of the Cold War, many policy makers acted as if we were in a prewar era, when we were actually, in my opinion, in a postwar era dealing with the natural long-term results of the Second World War. Those now in charge of American foreign policy, including the Secretary of State, evidently believe that Ronald Reagan and the United States destroyed Communism, rather than admit that it died of natural causes. And, of course, for the past five years we have been attempting to transform the Middle East. The President and his subordinates frequently refer to this as a “generational task” or “generational challenge,” comparable to the struggle against Fascism and Nazism or the Cold War. That in turn only shows how little sense they have of what our parents and grandparents did to create the world in which we have spent our lives.
The Second World War is in one sense the more relevant analogy, since it actually destroyed hostile regimes, and restored democracy in some (although less than half, as it turned out) of the territories those regimes had conquered. The Administration evidently has hoped to replace the ruling regimes in Iraq, Syria, and Iran with democracies, and some extreme neo-conservatives want to do the same in Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well. Let me be clear: I do not think the threats are comparable. While Germany and Japan may not have directly threatened the territory of the United States, they certainly threatened to bring the richest and most disciplined parts of the world under their control for many decades, and Germany, if victorious, actually would have threatened the US with ballistic missiles within a relatively short time. The threat posed by Muslim extremists consists of small bands like the 9/11 hijackers, for which a large-scale military response is not likely to be very effective. What is more important to understand, however, is the truly unimaginable scale of the effort the United States made in the Second World War to bring about the defeat of two major nations of between 50 and 100 million people each.
The Second World War, we may now say, was the climax of an era of large-scale industrial warfare that began in the American Civil War. From 1860 until about 1970, wars involved conscript armies numbering in the millions (16 million Americans were mobilized from 1940 through 1945.) They were fought with massive firepower delivered on land, from the sea, and from the air, destroying whole regions and cities and killing millions of people. They also involved massive economic dislocation, including manifold inflation, hunger, and, especially in Britain and the United States, huge tax increases reaching 90-95% marginal rates on higher incomes. And they involved the transformation of domestic economies, vastly increasing production not only of weapons and munitions, but of the basic materials like iron, steel and aluminum of which new weapons were constructed. It was perhaps Franklin Roosevelt’s most brilliant master stroke to realize in the spring of 1940 not only that war was probably coming to the United States, but also that the economic mobilization it would require had to begin then and there. Because the United States began unprecedented rearmament in 1940, it was ready in 1944 to deploy overwhelming force across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Most people do not realize it, but none of the major warring nations in that war came close to their peak war production until 1943, and most of them peaked during the next year. Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, and El Alamein, frequently cited as “turning points,” were really just successful holding actions that kept the Axis where they were until the allies were strong enough to administer truly crushing blows. And the United States hardly won the war on its own—Soviet production was equally impressive in many areas, and more so in tanks, perhaps the most critical weapon of that war.
In contrast, the Bush Administration began its grand project in 2002 while simultaneously cutting both taxes and the size of the armed forces—and even now, as the length of the Iraq War nears that of the Second World War, it has done nothing to reverse course. Meanwhile, our industrial production has fallen far below what it was at mid-century and it is far from certain that it could ever be revived. Nor can today’s weapons be mass-produced in the same way—they are too costly and too intricate, and rely, essentially, upon various kind of invulnerability, or upon avoiding wars with heavily armed powers. Iraq has proven something very clearly: we do not have the resources to clear and hold large hostile areas. Talk of increasing troops in Iraq by, say, 20,000 men only highlights how inadequate our resources were. But the Administration, led by Boomers who have always assumed they would easily get what they want out of life, refused to face these problems seriously, and still does.
Vietnam was the last major industrial-age war (although the Soviets also gave something similar a go in Afghanistan), and the reaction against it has effectively ended that era, beginning in 1973 with the end of the draft in the United States. (No western nation still has conscription, although China and India do.) Personally I am inclined to regard this, on the whole, as a good thing. The wars of the 1861-1973 period were enormously destructive and their results were often equivocal and disappointing. The Civil War ended slavery, but not white supremacy; the First World War had no good long-term results and led to huge setbacks to European civilization; and even the Second World War spread Communism around much of the globe. The world’s peoples have much less to fear from war today (although Iraq is showing how destructive civil conflict can be), and that, it seems to me, is a good thing. But it means that we must acknowledge our limitations as well.
The struggle in the Middle East is a political one, between pro-western and fundamentalist elements, and one could easily argue that the west’s position, and especially that of the United States, has been eroding for half a century. The Suez crisis, the fall of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, the Six-Day War and the emergence of the Palestinian question in 1967, the Lebanese civil war, the fall of the Shah in 1979, the spread of Wahabi Islam and the growth of organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah have all been setbacks for the United States. The most hopeful events were the shift in Egyptian policy during the 1970s and the first Gulf War, but Sadat’s courageous policies led to his own death and the increasing alienation of the Egyptian people from his successor’s government, and we have now thrown away most of the credit we built up in 1990-1. Whoever is to blame, too, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has certainly worked against American influence in the region, and deprived us of potentially our most useful political weapon. And our intervention in Iraq has made life much harder for Arab moderates, even in countries like Jordan and Egypt. (One of the bigger questions today is how Jordan will be affected by hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees.)
I have previously compared the intervention in Iraq to Japan’s decision in 1931 to take full control of Manchuria. There certainly are big differences in the two cases: Japan’s motives were frankly imperialistic, and the Army in Manchuria, not the government, set that war off. But in both cases, a major power destroyed a foreign sovereignty against the will of the international community, claiming that the step was necessary for its (and the world’s) peace and security. In neither case did things turn out as they had hoped. Japanese rule in Manchuria led to a confrontation with the Chinese government, and, in 1937, to full-scale war. One danger today is that something similar may happen—that the Bush Administration may decide that things in Iraq can only be set right by attacking Iran. More conflict in the Middle East could take much of the region out of the world economy, in which it plays a critical role. It could also set off waves of terrorism in Muslim communities overseas, posing a real threat to democratic practices in Europe and even North America.
A world without a draft, mass production of weapons, and high marginal tax rates could be a better world, but only if we allow for the existence of regimes with truly different values. I do not think it is too late for such a course. A broad based international conference of regional powers and Iraqi political groups to try to hammer out an Iraqi settlement (something like the Geneva conference on Laos in 1961-2) would be a possible first step. At the moment, in any case, we seem to have the worst of both worlds: a policy based on force, without any hope of deploying the force that it would require to implement.