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Shackled to a Corpse

Into its fifth year, with no end in sight, the war in Iraq has consumed the American people in ways similar to the Vietnam War a generation ago. Many see the war as open-ended, with a commitment lasting one hundred years if needed. The U.S. attempt at democratic transformation is still raging in a place that has never experienced representative rule in a history stretching over four thousand years. Apart from the human cost, both local and American, this conflict is costing the American taxpayer $12 billion each month!

Now we are faced with the possibility of yet another combat against Iran, a country with about three times the population of Iraq and with a potential nuclear capacity. Has the United States become obsessed with fighting such conflicts, in areas with only a distant and obscured national interest at stake? There are historical precedents.

By 1914, when World War I began, Balkan intrigues against the Habsburg Empire (Austria-Hungary) had been ongoing for years but Germany had always resisted the temptation to engage, prompting Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to quip that the Balkans “weren’t worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.”

As the war went on, Germany hoped that its Hapsburg ally could secure the Balkans. But the political chaos of the Empire and its military weakness became a major problem. The endemic need to rescue Austria-Hungary both from itself and its enemies caused Germany to belatedly view the Habsburgs as a strategic liability. Inside Germany, the phrase “shackled to a corpse” symbolized her view of the entanglement.

The current conflict with Iraq, amidst the maze of other zones of contention in the Middle East, may well represent America’s version of the Hapsburg alliance, draining this country’s global strategic ability to pursue its interests elsewhere, especially in the Far East, Russia, eastern and western Europe, China, India, Pakistan, and the Western Hemisphere. Domestically, this concentration, particularly with Iraq, has produced an increasingly bitter public, a “house divided,” and has eroded both our treasury and the public’s willingness to engage abroad.

Al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorists, of course, use the overall pattern of the U.S. presence in the Middle East as one of the main reasons for their aggressive hostilities. The official Bush Administration “line” dismisses these explanations as transparent and phony, instead proffering as terrorist motivations “hatred” of freedom and American values. Yet, we may be dangerously self-deceptive if we dismiss our enemies’ statements out-of-hand. This also has a precedent in history. The western world had Hitler’s Mein Kampf years before World War II but failed to take his rantings seriously until it was too late. Is it too late for the United States to self-examine its interests in the Middle East, in balance with strategic dangers and opportunities throughout the rest of the world?

There are a billion Muslims in the world, but American foreign policies have reflected little if any appreciation of their sensitivities or interests. To a large degree, we have been too parochial and generally have failed to appreciate the “otherness” of other cultures and religions. U.S. public diplomacy has not yet figured out a way to make our cultural and political system palatable to these people, while it is commonplace for our country to be labeled “the great Satan.”

Does this mean that the Middle East and Iraq/Iran are of no significance, that radical Islam is no threat, that the United States abandon the Middle East altogether and evacuate our military out of the area? Of course not! But on the other hand, it is past time for a wholesale re-evaluation of American global strategic policies. A prioritization of interests and commitments is absolutely essential if we are to have geopolitical balance – and success – in foreign policy and national security.

By and large, this fixation on transforming Iraq has developed without serious input from the body politic, while presidential candidates scurry away in denial of their earlier votes on Iraq. Nor is the problem an original American one, as it was imperial Britain and France which dismissed Lawrence of Arabia and carved up the Middle East for their own interests. But as the world’s only “superpower,” the United States has inherited Europe’s imperial adventures. This may have left America, the world’s greatest advocate of human freedom, on the wrong side of history.

The “corpse” metaphor, of course, is neither literal nor preordained. The U.S. spent over twelve years before finally leaving Vietnam, with barely any long-term side effects upon its range of global interests. Indeed, the country prospered, and, within years, had achieved the status as the world’s “sole superpower,” leaving the Soviet Union as a failed state. In the larger issue of Middle East oil, choices were – and still are – available. Persian Gulf oil constitutes only about 15% of the U.S. total. Can we find other regions, off-shore, like Alaska? Can we find non-military solutions to the conflicts endemic throughout the area? Can the U.S. act as an honest broker, with cultural understanding and diplomatic pursuits? Can we conform to the brilliant image as the “city on a hill,” offering hope in contrast to the endemic failures of Islamic nativism?

But the most serious problem is how the war in Iraq has created a strategic imbalance. In trying to “drain the swamp” of terrorism, the U.S. has only created more swamps, while others fester on the geopolitical map. Just imagine if the Chinese attacked Taiwan, or if the North Koreans threatened South Korea, or Venezuela threatened Colombia or any number of other contingencies that would command Washington’s immediate attention. America’s strategic focus on the scores of flash-points and larger interests throughout the rest of the world has been diverted for too long a time period. Future generations will have to pay for this strategic error, but for the moment we remain politically paralyzed, shackled to a corpse.