December 14, 2011
At the close of the Bush era, amid the wreckage of Afghanistan, Iraq – set for US withdrawal later this month – and the “unwinnable” asymmetrical war on terror, the world grew dismissive of American military might. Even State Department officials I spoke with were lamenting the thought of another overseas operation.
But amazing how quick reality can change in the world of warcraft.
Not discounting the unending mess of Afghanistan-Pakistan, the US has successfully reworked its use of hard power.
In most cases it has done so without putting a boot on the ground. Take Libya, where NATO and Qatar did the dirty work. Or Somalia, the scene of Black Hawk Down, where Ugandan and Burundian troops have diminished Islamist al-Shabaab; the 100 US Special Forces recently sent to East Africa will assist local armies with hardware and training but will not see combat. Same goes in Australia, where some 2,500 Marines will be stationed to counter an aggressive China, which is clamoring for greater regional respect.
In Iran, the US has so far resisted a direct military confrontation, choosing instead to rely on unmanned drones to gather intelligence. (It’s tempting to view the downed drone as proof that US is bumbling its way through the Islamic Republic, but in fact they’ve helped the US gather vital intelligence and have been game changers almost everywhere else they’ve been deployed.)
Not that the US has ruled out direct and even defiant military involvement, as we saw in its near-flawless operation to take out Osama bin Laden, also a brazen violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
Rather, notions of Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeldian brute force have been swapped for a more flexible approach that is conscious of the risks of military involvement and careful not to make a mess of things: Wherever possible, be scrupulous, discreet, nimble, and don’t run up the tab. Exhaust diplomatic options first.
Iraq, that nearly trillion dollar disgrace that has done much to obscure – and shape – the policy shift, will, tellingly, end later this month when the American flag is lowered and US troops come home for the last time.