What has failed in Iraq has been not just the strategy of the administration of George W. Bush -- but a whole way of looking at the world.
This consists of the beliefs that the United States is both so powerful and so obviously good that it has the ability to spread democracy throughout the world; that if necessary, this can be achieved through war; that this mission can also be made to advance particular U.S. national interests -- and that this combination will naturally be supported by good people all over the world, irrespective of their own political traditions, national allegiances and national interests.
These beliefs are very widely and instinctively shared throughout the U.S. establishment -- and both political parties. As a result, their failure in Iraq has so far led not to a new approach to international relations, but to a period of intellectual and political bewilderment.
This is now being succeeded by worrying indications of an emerging new bipartisan consensus, based essentially on the previous assumptions and myths.
Even after the debacle of Iraq, there is therefore at present no real opposition in the United States when it comes to foreign and security policy. The Democrats are bitterly, and rightly, critical of the monstrous incompetence displayed by the Bush Administration.
But they do not themselves have an alternative strategy or philosophy to offer. And too often, they content themselves with offering similar messianic platitudes about American greatness and the transformative power of democracy.
Vietnam taught us once that the United States is not invincible. All of the United States' technological superiority, and all the courage and skill of its soldiers, may be useless against certain kinds of enemies using certain kinds of strategy.
After all, military power is not something you hang on a wall for visitors to admire. Real military power is power that can be used. America’s famous 12 aircraft carrier battle groups are not much use on the streets of Fallujah.
Lessons not Learned
Vietnam also should have taught us that American preaching of democracy, even with the best of intentions, will not be accepted by other peoples -- if it is accompanied by strategies that they see as opposed to their national pride and national aspirations.
Yet, a generation later, these lessons seem to have been forgotten. The stakes today are much higher than they were in Vietnam.
Getting Serious on Security
Despite the illusions of that time, Indochina was never really very important to the United States, to its leadership in the world, or to the world economy.
Nobody could say that of the Middle East today. Nor was there ever a chance of the Vietnamese Communists, or Saddam Hussein for that matter, attacking Americans at home.
Americans, the British and the Spanish all have bitter reason to know that this is not true of Al Qaeda and its allies. The threat from Islamist terrorism has to be taken very seriously indeed -- more seriously than any other security issue now facing the United States.
Missing the Meaning
Unfortunately the political left, believing the terrorist threat has been exaggerated, directs more of its attention and criticism at America’s own government than at the nation’s mortal enemies.
Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq has squandered time and energy, increased Muslim hatred of the United States -- and created a breeding ground for terrorists. A war with Iran would repeat this dreadful mistake on an even larger scale.
Shunning these distractions, we need to focus on Al Qaeda and their allies in the world of Sunni Islamist extremism. These are the people who actually carried out 9/11 and killed thousands of Americans.
They are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and if they gain them and can deploy them, they will carry out atrocities far worse than 9/11 -- and not just against us, but against all their enemies.
Russians, Shia Muslims in Iraq and Pakistan, and victims of the Taliban in Afghanistan all have good reason to know this. The Islamist terrorists are also our most dangerous enemies because they can persuade us to destroy ourselves.
We have already seen in the years after 9/11 how that terrorist attack has led the U.S. administration and military into actions and arguments that previous generations of Americans would have found inconceivable.
These actions have tarnished the image of American democracy in the world. One shudders to think of the consequences for U.S. democracy of another truly massive terrorist attack.
This article is adapted from "Ethical Realism: A Vision For America's Role In the World" by Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman.