We are now close to
the end-game in Iraq. By almost common consent, and even in the
opinion of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Americas
Iraq venture is a disaster.
Only a few those whose spiritual
home is the last ditch, or who cannot for political reasons acknowledge
what they know is true still dispute the matter.
The disaster has a significance that reaches beyond Iraq itself,
devastating as it has been for that country. It is hugely significant
in terms of US policy.
Exactly three years ago, in November
2003, I tried to explain why in the second of my Boyer Lectures:
[T]he Iraq commitment has an importance that goes way beyond
the fate of Iraq itself.
If, in the end, it turns out successfully, it is likely that
the setbacks that have occurred since the end of the heavy fighting
will be seen as part of a learning experience, a
breaking-in period for a new, revolutionary, strategic doctrine.
If, on the other hand, it fails at the first hurdle if,
that is, the United States finds that bringing about security,
stability, a decent political order, and an improvement in the
living standards of the Iraqi people, is beyond its capacity;
if the whole thing becomes a quagmire
not only will there have to be a reconsideration of the whole
global strategy, but the limits of the United States capacity
will have been made evident, and the inclination to resist it
[Owen Harries, Benign or imperial? Reflections
on American hegemony. Boyer Lectures 2003. Sydney, ABC Books,
2004, p 29]
I spoke as a sceptical critic of the Iraq project. But The
Weekly Standard, the influential house journal of American
neo-conservatives and an ardent supporter of that project,
concurred. Around the same time as I wrote those words it editorialised
that: The future course of American foreign policy, American
world leadership, and American security is at stake. Failure
in Iraq would be a devastating blow to everything the United
States hopes to accomplish, and must accomplish, in the decades
What gave the Iraq venture this
significance was that it was not meant to be a singular and discrete
event. Rather it represented the first application by the United
States of an incredibly ambitious foreign policy doctrine. This
was the Bush Doctrine, formally proclaimed in the presidential
National Security Strategy of September 2002.3 It committed the
United States, not only to combating terror, but to actively
promoting democracy and a market economy in every corner
of the world that is, to transform the whole international
system to conform to American values. To that end it would, where
necessary, use its vast military force, not only defensively
to contain and deter its adversaries, but actively, assertively
And the document, prepared without any consultation with allies,
made it clear that the United States would not hesitate to act
alone if necessary.
This represented, and still does, an enormously ambitious and
seriously intended project.
Only someone ignorant of American history and political culture
would have dismissed it as rhetoric. Americans take their doctrines
So what of the future of the Bush Doctrine now, after the fiasco
and tragedy of Iraq? Does failure on its first outing spell an
early grave for it, does it mean that it will have been but a
brief passing episode in the history of American foreign policy?
I am not as sure about this as I seem to have been three years
ago. In any case in considering these questions it is worth reflecting
briefly on the circumstances and forces that gave rise to the
Doctrine in the first place.
[Robert Kagan and William Kristol, Do what
it takes in Iraq. The Weekly Standard, Vol. 8(48) 1-8
September 2003, p 7. The National Security Strategy of the United
States of America. Washington, President of the US, 2006]
First, there was, of course, the
shock of the terrorist attack of 9/11, and the tremendous sense
of outrage and violation it created in a country whose mainland
had not been subject to
foreign attack for over a century and a half. And with the outrage
came an urgent, angry demand for a decisive response.
Second, there was the fact of a new and inexperienced president
having to cope with the crisis a man who had virtually
no experience in international affairs, but one who had strong
convictions, including religious ones, and who tended to see
things in terms of a single, sharp dichotomy, a Manichean world
divided starkly into good and evil, with no middle ground. As
a new man facing a major crisis he had much to prove, not least
because he was the son of a president whose speciality had been
Third, there was the presence in and around the Bush Administration
of some well placed, very articulate and intellectually persuasive
neo-conservatives, with an ideological, moralistic and very assertive
view of Americas role in the world, and an agenda that
had on it an attack on Saddam Husseins Iraq as a priority
These three factors in the shaping of the Bush doctrine were
undoubtedly important. But they were also transient factors,
and to the extent that one focused on them one might well
conclude that the impulse that created the Bush Doctrine is now
due to fade.
It is, after all, over five years since 9/11 and five years is
a long time in politics. Anger and passion fade. Bush is now
a lame duck president, with no control over Congress and low
poll ratings. And the neo-conservatives are discredited, divided
and with a much reduced influence.
So does this mean the end of what
the Bush Doctrine stood for? Not necessarily. For as well as
these three transient factors the doctrine also represented two
more enduring and
fundamental features of the situation one structural,
one cultural that will not disappear when the Iraq venture
ends: Americas global hegemony and American exceptionalism.
The United States went into Iraq a confident hegemon, the indispensable
nation without which nothing important could be done, as
Madeleine Albright used to lecture the world. It
will come out of it a damaged hegemon but still a hegemon,
still far and away the strongest state on earth. It will remain
such for at least a couple of decades. When the weak fail, they
have no option but to accept the fact and usually there are no
When the very strong fail, they
tend to find excuses, regroup and try again, changing their methods
and their timetable but maintaining their goals. As hegemon,
the United States will still want to impose its will on the world,
and that will still represents American values as well as American
Which brings us to the other enduring factor, a cultural one:
American exceptionalism, the strange term used to identify the
profound belief widely held by Americans since their
beginning as a nation that it is their historical indeed
their divinely ordained destiny to be, in the words of
Reinhold Niebuhr, tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to
perfection or in the words of President Woodrow
Wilson, that Americans are divinely chosen to show the
nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.
However condescending and presumptuous others may find this conviction,
it is deeply held and as natural to Americans as apple pie. It
will certainly survive the Iraq experience.
So what is likely to happen to American foreign policy post-Iraq?
In my view there will not be anything like a 180 degree or even
a 90 degree change of course, but there will be
significant adjustments and alterations as certain lessons of
recent experience and the validity of the realist critique of
that experience are acknowledged. Among the lessons, I suggest,
will be these:
While the US military
has tremendous destructive capacity in war, its constructive
uses, and its capacity for
anything resembling nation building, are quite
Differences of cultures
and circumstances matter. (On
this, instead of consulting Bill Kristol, the influential neo-con
editor of The Weekly Standard and one of the principal
supporters of the Bush Doctrine, consult his distinguished father,
Irving Kristol, who once expressed the view that: there
are many nations where the American ideal of self-government
in liberty is simply irrelevant. In those cases we simply have
too accept that fact, while using our influence to encourage
a little movement in the direction of political decency, as we
Largely because it is a huge, self-absorbed country with
a strong commitment to its own values, the American capacity
for understanding and interacting with other cultures,
particularly non-Western ones, is not impressive. It is a
common and profound mistake to think that all other peoples want
the same things, have the same priorities, as Americans have.
understand it.) For utopian bliss substitute a little common
The irony of American history. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons,
Even the most powerful
need the support of others.
If you need and want that support, and you do, consult them before
you set out on a grand project, not late in the game when you
are in difficulties. If you accept former Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfelds dictum that the worst thing you can do
is allow a coalition to determine what your mission is,
[then] be prepared to have a certain sense of loneliness and
desertion if and when difficulties arise. To ensure support,
a hegemon, however powerful, would be well advised to act as
first among equals primus inter pares rather than
throw its weight around and give instructions.
Pre-emptive or preventative
wars, if engaged in at all
(and they may sometimes be necessary) need to be short, quick
and not very costly in blood and treasure. The American
people will not support protracted and expensive conflicts that
are not clearly defensive responses to aggression and/or serious
provocation. That includes humanitarian wars.
The grander and more sweeping the goals of a political
enterprise, the greater the likelihood of unintended consequences
and consequently a loss of control.
Trust is a scarce commodity
in international politics.
If you destroy an existing order, you are saddled with
mess and the responsibility for putting something workable
in its place. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell succinctly
put it to President George W. Bush before Iraq, quoting the warning
displayed in china shops: You break it, you own it.
It will be particularly important to keep this in mind in
formulating policy toward Iran, a bigger country than Iraq, in
the near future.
It is prudent not to allow too blatant a discrepancy
to develop between your ends and means. The moral costs of
doing so are likely to come high. Thus if you claim to be
promoting freedom, democracy and the rule of law, it will be
dangerous to your image and credibility to engage in torture,
or extraordinary rendition, or to violate habeas
more elevated your moral claims, the more blatant the discrepancy.
The claim that double standards in ones favour
are justified a claim often made by neoconservatives
fits badly with claims of moral superiority. To
say that I am justified in
behaving worse than you because I am morally superior to you
does not really carry conviction.
In considering the extent to which other countries should
trust America to use its vast power in a non-threatening way,
Americans should consider the extent to which they
themselves are prepared to trust other states, even states
which have much less power than the United States.
How well these and similar lessons will be recognised and learnt
in the near future, I do not know. On the one hand, America has
in the past been quick to correct its errors and to be impressive
on the rebound.
It may turn out that this
was the failure that the United States had to have in order to
bring its hubris under control after all, think where
we might be now if Iraq had been a walk in the park, a quick
and easy success. What might the Bush Administration have been
determined to take on in that event ?
On the other hand, there is little reason to place great faith
in the Democrats, who are divided and illusion prone on foreign
And, of course, if there is another serious terrorist episode
on American soil, something that many experts think is more than
likely, all bets are off.
Id like to turn briefly now to say something about Australia
If one considers the grand strategy of Australian foreign policy
over the last century what strikes one is its essential simplicity
and consistency. It has always consisted of allying
oneself closely with a great power that is committed to preserving
the existing international order against those who want to change
For the first forty years of Australias existence that
power was Great Britain. After 1941 it was for a period Great
Britain and the United States. For the last half century it has
United States. Between them those states strove to maintain the
international status quo against those revisionist states
Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union who sought to change
This policy may not always have
satisfied the Australian sense of independence and pride
All the way with LBJ was not after all an inspiring
cry with which to send Australian men
off to war but in realist terms it made good sense. Australia
was and is a satisfied, status quo state. A huge, well-endowed
country with a population of only 20 million, it has a lot more
than its share of the worlds good things. It does not want
that state of affairs to change. It can not sensibly hope to
get even more than it has got, but upheaval and turbulence could
easily result in its having less. So aligning itself with the
leading status quo countries made good realist sense. The fact
that Australia shared certain important values and institutions
with those countries made that a very acceptable and congenial
policy, an easy one to explain and defend in the non-realist
terms that many preferred.
When, on the day after 9/11, Prime Minister John Howard promised
full Australian support for the United States, even before he
knew what the policy response of that country would be, he was
being true to that tradition. Howard had no great experience
in foreign policy, no desire to be an innovator. He merely walked
an established path. Or so he assumed.
But there was one fundamental thing that Howard did not anticipate:
that, with the Bush Doctrine (not yet enunciated when he made
his promise) the United States was about to
change from being a status quo power to a revolutionary one,
solemnly and seriously committed to changing the world radically.
Howard committed Australia to going along with
the first manifestation of that commitment, the invasion of Iraq.
As a result, Australia, a quintessential satisfied country, has
found itself engaged in an ideological war against a
country that, however vile its regime, did not in any way threaten
us or the international status quo and was, as we now
know, our best wheat customer.
An alternative interpretation is that Howard did indeed understand
the direction in which US policy was moving, but that he was
so convinced of the effectiveness of US power that he
assumed that the whole Iraq venture would be so quick and easy
that the rewards for Australia praise and appreciation
in Washington, a free trade agreement would easily outweigh
the costs. In either case it was, in my opinion, an example of
misplaced realism. And in either case it is extremely dubious
whether uncritical, loyal support for a bad, failed American
policy will have enhanced our standing as an ally in the long
run. A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not
one to be sought.
As far as Australias participation
in the war has been concerned, there has been a marked discrepancy
between the rhetoric and the commitment. The rhetoric has insisted
stakes are high and the issues vital. Our very freedom
is at stake, declaimed Foreign Minister Alexander Downer
in a speech earlier this year. But our military commitment in
has been extremely modest some 700-800 personnel on the
ground. And not only are the numbers small but Australian forces
have not been deployed where the action is hottest,
where the Americans have been taking serious losses and the British
significant ones. Indeed, this may well be the first war in which
Australian forces have been engaged in which they end up not
suffering a single battleground fatality.
This undoubtedly makes it easier for government spokesmen to
scorn cutting and running and failing to stay
the course. Such sentiments would be harder to express
significant Australian losses. To take the ultimate example,
no one spoke scornfully of cut and run when the withdrawal
from Gallipoli occurred, after it had become clear that the
venture had failed. There is nothing shameful about recognising
the fact and acting appropriately when failure has occurred,
as it surely has in Iraq. The shame, if any, attaches to
the original bad policies, not to the withdrawal. There is plenty
of scope for discussion as to what is the best course of action,
the order and tempo of events, but simply yelling No cut
and run and having no apparent plan for ending ones
participation in the business, beyond making our decision entirely
dependent on the decision of an inept and demoralised Bush Administration,
is surely a pathetic sign of political and intellectual bankruptcy.
The US-Australia alliance will endure,
both because it serves real interests and because the need for
a great and powerful friend is deeply embedded in
the Australian psyche. But for a middle power to maintain successfully
a close relationship with a superpower is not an easy business.
When that superpower is the only one in the world the
global hegemon it is harder still. And when the hegemon
is badly rattled and internally divided by a recent failure,
it is going to be even more difficult.
The relationship is inherently unequal and there is always the
danger for the weaker party of becoming so enmeshed in the affairs
of the senior partner as to lose its autonomy. Nothing comes
for free: privileged access to intelligence; participation in
contingency planning; interoperability in weapon systems
all these bind one closer. And the desire to be liked can come
to take precedence over the insistence on being respected. Saying
no, however politely, can get to be hard.
It may seem to be odd to speak in these terms during the tenure
of John Howard, one of the most tough-minded politicians Australia
has ever produced. But Howard came to foreign
policy late. It is not his métier. He is approaching the
end of his career, seeks and enjoys international recognition,
and the seductive power of Washington and the White House are
In any case I believe that the days when Australian foreign policy
was a relatively simple affair are coming to an end. Dealing
with an unsettled superpower ally, while simultaneously
adjusting to the rising importance of China as a regional power
and a trading partner, is going to require skills that Australia
has not had much cause to practise until now.
Let me end by reminding you that exactly fifty years ago another
great crisis and consequent fiasco occurred in
world politics: the Suez Crisis. During it the United States
managed to humiliate both its major allies, causing them to abort
their attack on Egypt and orchestrating their humiliation at
A British minister, Anthony Nutting, who resigned over the issue,
wrote a book about it, calling it No End of a Lesson. But different
countries learned different lessons: France, never
to trust America again; Britain, never to cross America again.
Both lessons were too extreme.
Every alliance requires a degree of trust. It also requires discrimination
and balance and a touch of scepticism. What Australia
must learn from the Iraq experience is that it should not commit
itself to marching in lock-step with anyone let alone
a superpower which is simultaneously committed to an incredibly
ambitious program of global change, deeply
divided domestically, and has the most inept president since
Warren G. Harding in its White House.
It must learn to be as good an ally as it can be while maintaining
its freedom of choice.