War Exposes Limits of America’s Diplomatic Power

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

May 7, 2003

The United States has won the battle for Baghdad, but the outcome of the war in Iraq is yet to be determined. The military action has so far confirmed that U.S. military power is formidable. But events before the war have also exposed the profound limitations of American diplomatic power, a limitation that is compounded by a lack of credibility around the world.

Political commentators are focusing now on what they call “winning the peace” or on re-examining the American justifications for this war, especially since Saddam Hussein neither used any weapons of mass destruction, even as his regime was destroyed, nor have any hidden caches so far been found.

The Bush administration had hedged its bet by throwing in “freedom for Iraqis” as another reason for regime change. That is a good thing. If no trace of weapons of mass destruction is found, the United States and United Kingdom can still save face by claiming that regime change has brought freedom to Iraq.

But the United States faces much tougher challenges than those posed by either the French or the Fedayeen. The international political battles that are yet to come will be more demanding.

In its march toward Baghdad, the Bush administration trampled on many vital assets. It forced longstanding allies, such as France and Germany, to join with Russia in forming a coalition of those willing to challenge and contain the United States through diplomacy. Under the Clinton administration, the United States invested billions of dollars in building a relationship with Russia that we can now safely write off. This new alliance will continue to solidify, attract newer members and enjoy worldwide public support if the United States continues to act unilaterally and spurns the United Nations.

In the last 55 years, the United States has invested billions of dollars and enormous political and diplomatic resources in developing an international order based on the principles of international law and multilateralism, using the United Nations as the epicenter of the network of international governmental organizations that govern the global society. The United States has not only endangered the future of this global public good, but is also running the risk of becoming a hyper-rogue power. U.S. investments over the years to sustain a prosperous and peaceful Europe are also at risk.

While many hawkish voices in Washington are willing to dismiss the new France, the diminished United Nations and the emerging Turkey as minor diplomatic problems, the exclusion of the United Nations from governance issues in Iraq may create a split in the Anglo-American alliance. If a credible cache of weapons of mass destruction is not found soon, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will not risk another confrontation with his own people. He will demand that the United Nations play a major role in the shaping of Iraq, and he will insist that the United States pay more attention to the Palestinians’ plight. If Washington ignores these demands, Blair will probably decide to align with Britain and Europe and will turn in his Texas Rangers badge.

The Bush administration must now act with great caution and prudence. I am glad the president is praying everyday for more wisdom. He will certainly need it to make peace with the world. He must now devote himself to the following tasks:

  • Strengthen the United Nations by sharing with it responsibility (and risks) in the reconstructing Iraqi governance, infrastructure, security, economy and civil society.
  • Strengthen Blair and protect the U.S.-U.K. alliance by pursuing the diplomatic measures that will help make peace between Blair and his people.
  • Diffuse the coalition between Russia, France and Germany. This can be easily done by either accommodating French or Russian economic interests in the spoils of war. If the French are accommodated, it will not only weaken the anti-U.S. coalition but bring the entire European Union behind the United States.
  • The administration must pursue tripartite talks between the Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds (in close consultation with Turkey and Iran) to ensure a stable peace and trigger democratization. Hawks in Washington averse to any overtures toward Iran should remember the help Iran provided in forming a pro-U.S. government in Afghanistan at the talks in Berlin.

American arrogance and America’s inability to make conclusive cases for its claims is ensuring that its credibility is exhausted. The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes makes a mockery of the longstanding American claim that it is a super power that exercises force with responsibility. If no credible cache of weapons of mass destruction is found in Iraq, not only the rest of the world but many Americans will feel this administration has risked the life of Americans and Iraqis on flimsy claims.

If America does not reconstruct Iraq, fails to deliver democracy and continues to ignore the plight of the Palestinians, it undoubtedly will become the most hated, isolated nation in the world. And we will for a long time live our lives by the colors of the homeland security threat codes.