Last week's tragic earthquake and tsunami in South and Southeast Asia underscore the narrowness of the parameters of U.S. power. Though the U.S. may be the most powerful nation on earth, even in human history, there will always be crises and trials that test the limits of any state's power. Every effort will surely be made to bring relief to those who are suffering, but the magnitude of this disaster is so great that true relief and recovery will most likely be achieved only after long work and more grievous loss.
For the moment more dramatic events in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India have eclipsed the ongoing crisis in Iraq. But that conflict too is casting harsh light on the limits of U.S. power. The force-projection capacity of the all-volunteer U.S. military is stretched to its absolute limit, yet it seems increasingly doubtful that the U.S. and its allies (both within Iraq and without) will succeed in dictating a political solution, even a provisional one. This naturally raises the question, what could have been done? If the U.S. military, the most technologically sophisticated and devastating force in world history, can not put its imprimatur on Iraqi society is the U.S. then totally powerless to sway events in the Middle East?
The answer, of course, is no. There are two fundamental and potentially earth-shaking "grand strategies" available to the U.S. that our current leadership have ignored or abjured. These two grand-strategy operations would exponentially leverage U.S. power in the region and realign forces on the ground in ways that integrally serve U.S. interests. Unfortunately, in the absence of these moves any U.S. attempt to effect even small changes in Middle Eastern politics must be deemed Sisyphean tasks.
The first strategic asset available to the U.S. resides in Israel-Palestine relations. Every forward movement in that situation has been achieved with U.S. participation and guidance, and the international community recognizes that any final or stable resolution of that conflict waits upon U.S. brokerage. If and when a two-state solution is realized in Israel-Palestine a lion's share of the credit will redound upon the U.S. The realization of Palestinian nationhood is a goal so cherished among Muslims generally and Arabs more particularly that U.S. prestige will rise dramatically in the wake of its achievement. Conversesly, because U.S. power is viewed as so intrinsic to the Israel-Palestine peace process, every day that a two state solution is delayed sees a decline in U.S. prestige and influence among Muslims and especially Arabs. One of the greatest assets of Al Qaeda and its confederates, groups that inhabit the lunatic fringe of Arab politics, is that they can exploit the Israel-Palestine issue to drum up anti-U.S. sentiment and to attract sympathy and support to their cause. Al Qaeda cares very little about the plight of the Palestinian people, but because Anti-Zionism dovetails well with their radical vision of jihad they are able to exploit this accidental and somewhat arbitrary confluence between their own twisted ideology and the sympathies of the wider Arab community to maximum political effect. If the U.S. were to broker a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine Osama bin-Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would be robbed of this asset and all of the political capital they derive from the issue (and more) would be transferred to the U.S.
Even more than its influence in Israel-Palestine, the U.S. possesses a potentially devastating strategic weapon in its participation in world oil markets. The U.S. remains the single largest consumer of fossil fuel in the world, and oil wealth remains the bedrock upon which the dysfunctional political regimes of the Arab world are founded. Without the revenue they can draw from oil, tyrants like Saddam Hussein would never be able to dominate Arab society as they have done since the mid-20th century. A reduction in the U.S. consumption of oil would take money out of the hands of despots and terrorists and force a fundamental restructuring of the Arab world. Such a move would force a wave of the same kind of industrialization and political liberalization the Bush regime hoped to achieve by force of arms in invading Iraq. Unfortunately, as long as the U.S. remains economically addicted to Middle Eastern oil it will be too deeply implicated in the regressive political structures of the Middle East to do anything to substantially change them. Until Arab leaders have incentive to invest their nations' wealth in infrastructure that will create new wealth and add value to their economic output none of the exploitative structures of Arab society can be expected to change. Those leaders will never have such incentive as long as they can count on a steady stream of petrodollars from the bottomless coffer of the U.S. economy.
I would have cautioned our leaders against an invasion of Iraq under any circumstances. However, launching Operation Iraqi Freedom in advance of these measures was strategic folly of the worst kind. It is now perhaps too late for these steps, even if taken in all haste, to produce an optimal outcome in Iraq. It is certain, however, that the faster and more thoroughly the U.S. moves on these two fronts, the more successful all of our political and military efforts will be in the Middle East in both the long and short run.