Middle East Insight

Limitations of Power

The rapid collapse of the Taliban regime with minimal American losses has been psychologically healing for a nation that has endured the horrors of September 11. Although the global war on Al-Qaeda and attaining full stability in Afghanistan—let alone winning the war on terrorism more broadly—are by no means at hand, the accomplishments of the American military without substantial use of ground forces has surpassed even the optimistic expectations of last October. This remarkable success has given rise to a new sense of American power that even transcends other historical moments of military victories. This sense of almost unlimited power stands in marked contrast to the unprecedented sense of American vulnerability that immediately followed the attacks on New York and Washington. It is also reminiscent of the wild swings in the American mood that followed major events that helped form the attitudes of entire American generations. From the isolationism that followed World War I, to the interventionism that followed Pearl Harbor, to the Vietnam syndrome that resulted from the quagmire in that remote land, disastrous events helped shape the national mood. In each case, the mood was pushed to disastrous extremes that ultimately propelled a move in the opposite direction. But rarely have we seen such an incredible swing from a sense of weakness to a feeling of strength in a matter of a few short months. While this swing is in some ways rejuvenating, the historical record requires us to contemplate the moment before we jump into new adventures as though our power were unlimited.

It is certainly true that the United States is today more powerful militarily in relation to other states than perhaps at any time in history. Since the 1991 Gulf War, the American technological edge over other states has only increased, and the performance of American weapons in Afghanistan was markedly superior to those employed in Iraq a decade ago. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Cold War was already over, but the Soviet Union had not yet disintegrated, and some in the international community had not yet reconciled themselves to the change in the global distribution of power. Indeed, Iraq was still of the belief that the Soviet Union, especially its armed forces, could be induced to return to the role of balancing American power. This was clearly articulated by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in important speeches he gave in February and May 1990, in which he asked his Arab colleagues to help give incentives to the Soviet Union to return to that role.

In contrast, no one genuinely believes that today?s Russia, the European Union, or even China is able or willing to exercise the role of direct competition with American power. In that sense, it is justifiable to think that the United States today wields enormous military capabilities and has extraordinary global leeway in exercising these capabilities. But it is a far cry from this position to making the case that the United States can employ these capabilities directly to achieve all its political aims. In particular, one cannot address the most pressing problem the United States now faces—i.e., that of global terrorism—through military means alone, even if military means are necessary in confronting those who organize and carry out terror attacks. If there is a painful lesson to be learned from the horror of last September, it is how easy it is for groups of individuals, even with the simplest technology, to carry out acts on a mass scale, especially if they are willing to die in the process. The threat, therefore, is not merely from Al-Qaeda itself—an organization that certainly must be confronted forcefully before considering the next steps in the war on terrorism—but it is the example of how easy it is to inflict pain on the world?s remaining superpower. And this is something that may encourage others who are desperate for change to fall into recruitment traps of other ambitious suppliers of terror.

The demand side of terrorism is propelled not so much by poverty and inequality—although, on the extreme ends, these are also factors—as by the fertile ground of hopelessness and humiliation. This sense of humiliation and hopelessness cannot be addressed militarily; it can only be addressed politically and economically. In fact, if we rely entirely on the military campaign to eradicate some of the suppliers of terror, but in the process increase public humiliation and hopelessness, we would merely be buying time until new suppliers emerge to exploit the public mood and recruit the desperate young. There is no alternative to a significant political/diplomatic campaign to reduce humiliation and hopelessness that must accompany the military campaign in the war on terrorism.

It is also telling that the threat of terrorism is, in some ways, more difficult to confront than the threat posed by powerful states. Fragmented groups cannot be easily deterred, as it is often difficult to know whom to punish. As such, fragmentation and instability are allies of terrorism. And yet, the military power that the United States wields today can punish and destroy enemies and defend the United States against hostile states. But power cannot assure the outcome that you leave behind. It cannot assure stability of states or the absence of fragmentation. In this regard, one can win as we previously did in Afghanistan with defeat of the Soviet-backed regime there, but leave, only to be haunted later by the consequences of fragmentation. Do we have the will, the resources, and the skill to persevere following military victories, to mitigate long-term consequences? Can we repeat that effort in other places simultaneously, such as Iraq and Somalia? And will we rely on our unilateral power in a way that will propel smaller powers to accelerate their efforts to counter our dominance? America is powerful today, and the suppliers are on the defensive. This power can be used prudently or recklessly. In the Middle East, the United States can and should use its influence to its advantage in its war on terrorism, but unless this use of force is accompanied by more aggressive diplomatic intervention to resolve issues, like the Arab-Israeli conflict, that are significant sources of public hopelessness and humiliation, it will be very difficult to turn short-term military victories into long-term successes.

Shibley Telhami is Middle East Insight contributing editor, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-editor, with Michael Barnett, of Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2002).