Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 688 pp., $35.00.
Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 128 pp., $19.95.
Forging a World of Liberty Under Law: U.S. Security in the 21st Century (Final report of the Princeton Project on National Security, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, 2006), G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter (codirectors).
WHICHEVER U.S. party forms the next administration will have to do so in circumstances where America's capacity for decisive action in the outside world has been greatly diminished, at least compared to the grandiose ambitions which the Bush administration nourished in its first three years in power. Most importantly, Iraq and Afghanistan have revealed the immense expenditure of troops and money required to fight even medium-size mass insurgencies--to the extent that America's ability to engage in any additional ground wars is in serious question.
In part, this is because the United States is suffering from the oldest of all syndromes afflicting elderly empires with spoiled elites and debellicized populations: the inability to raise enough troops, largely because of the inability to raise taxes in order to pay for them. In addition, with the partial exceptions of Britain and Canada, most U.S. allies have proved completely worthless in terms of real military or indeed economic assistance.
Largely in consequence of the evident constraints on U.S. ground troops, the Iranian regime can cock snook after snook at Washington, confident that while Iran may be bombed--which would only strengthen the regime further--the United States simply does not have the troops to invade Iran and overthrow them. North Korea comes close behind in its impertinence, and to the extent that Pyongyang has been reined in, this has been largely due not to American but to Chinese pressure.
Both Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated the extreme difficulty of state building, let alone democracy building, in weak and ethnically divided societies. In the Middle East as a whole, the administration's "strategy" for democracy promotion lies in ruins. Iraq and Afghanistan also demonstrate breakdowns of the American policymaking community when it comes to knowledge, insight, planning and prediction regarding particular countries of concern.
This is all the stranger since a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had been a possibility for a decade before 2003. And, as Michael Scheuer and other intelligence veterans have reminded us, in Afghanistan the U.S. government had a reserve of knowledge from the 1980s, which Washington allowed to dissipate almost completely and failed to reactivate even after al-Qaeda had begun murderous attacks on U.S. targets in the late 1990s from the group's bases in Afghanistan. Governments are supposed to have plans for such scenarios, and think tanks are supposed to think about them seriously. Had they not learned the lesson of Vietnam? As Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon official who became a leading antiwar critic, and others have remarked, not one of the senior civilian and military planners of America's engagement in Vietnam could have passed a midterm freshman examination in modern Vietnamese history. The same was true of the planners of the Iraq War and all too many Western writers on the "war on terror." Today, the United States is barely better placed when it comes to real knowledge of other global hot-spot issues like Pakistan, for example.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a quagmire which the United States can neither drain nor abandon. Pakistan, whether under military or civilian rule, demonstrates the difficulty of managing client states when these are impossible to direct, change or overthrow. India is happy to swallow American nuclear largesse while remaining determined to pursue its own quite-contrary interests on key issues--including links with Iran. China's economic growth has put it within realistic hope of superpower status over the next generation and created looming dilemmas for the United States in its economic policy and global strategy. And Russia, which seemed finished as a major player, has made an astonishing recovery, drawing the whole of America's existing geopolitical strategy in Eurasia into question.
Finally, over the past eight years recognition of the monstrous threat of climate change as a result of greenhouse-gas emissions has achieved such an overwhelming scientific consensus that in the end even the Bush administration had to acknowledge its reality. As the report by Sir Nicholas Stern indicated, over the next century this will represent by far the greatest challenge to the existence of the present world political, social and economic order, and already represents "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen." But while the threat is now recognized by a majority of U.S. political elites, most still seem almost hopelessly far from really determined action, least of all on a scale that would spur China and India to curb their own steeply mounting emissions.
Of course, the United States remains by a long distance the greatest player on the world stage, with the largest (though not necessarily the strongest) economy and the only real capacity for any significant global deployment of military force. For all the weakness of its ground forces relative to the demands being put on them, Washington also retains the ability to impose through bombardment shattering costs on...