American power has limits? Who knew?

Steve Clemons tells us today that

    Afghanistan, like Iraq, is sending the impression to the rest of the world that America is at a “limit” point in its military and power capabilities.

Well, duh.
He goes on to say,

    Limits are very, very, very bad in the great power game — and Afghanistan is yet again, an exposer of monumental limits on American power.

Now, Steve is usually an intelligent and reasonable person. So I’m mystified why he is giving the impression here that the US had no significant “limits” on its great-power capabilities until the Iraq war; and that the relatively sudden “revelation” that there are such limits is both surprising and “very, very bad.”
C’meon, Steve. Yeah, maybe you grew up more in the era of post-Cold War US uberpowerdom than I did. But even then, there were always limits on US power.
And you know what, for any kind of a realist, knowing there are limits and figuring out how to work effectively within them is a good thing, not a bad thing.
It was GWB and his crowd who thought there were no limits, and that they could make their own history regardless of other powers or other interests.
… Steve’s piece was basically about Afghanistan. Neither he nor anyone else has yet been able to explain to me why the US (which is located halfway round the world from Afghanistan) and NATO– in which the allies are also very geographically and culturally distant from Afghanistan– could ever be conceived to be the ideal tools for “pacifying” Afghanistan.
Let’s have a whole lot more realism in this discussion. Including by recognizing there are limits to US power.

13 thoughts on “American power has limits? Who knew?

  1. JohnH

    Steve may be a reasonable and intelligent person, but he usually limits himself to commenting on situations and addressing process. Rarely does he criticize or even try to explain Washington’s policy objectives or the ambitions behind them. So his commentary is most striking for its clarity of opinion and for being a welcome departure.
    The main question has been sitting there for years with no takers: What is the point of Afghanistan (Iraq, too)? What are the stakes?
    Lots of objectives have been floated. None bear scrutiny (as in the cases of Iraq and in Iran). If America is losing credibility among its friends and foes, it’s not just because its bumping up against the limits of its power. Rather, it’s because its foreign policy is a farce. How do you conduct Jerry Seinfeld wars (shows about nothing) and still maintain respect or even attend to what really matters?
    It’s also difficult to maintain credibility by constantly demonstrating a compulsive need to show toughness, blowing up hospitals, funeral and wedding parties, and villages of the world’s poorest people. Such behavior may play well in Washington, but it does not win many points elsewhere, especially if these are the means used to pursue no end in particular.
    It’s strange how Washington works. Nobody had anything intelligent to say about Afghanistan for years. Then suddenly somebody flipped a switch (must have been George Will) and made it acceptable to actually think about Afghanistan. Now everyone is weighing in: the New York Times (Lander and Cooper), Pat Buchanan, even Norman Solomon.

  2. Domza

    Good roundup from Richard Neville, former editor of Oz, on Counterpunch at:
    http://www.counterpunch.org/neville09092009.html
    I didn’t know the Aussies were in Afghanistan. One Aussie bloke in Johannesburg recently told me practically with tears in his eyes that the new Labour government had apologised to the Aborigines.
    Meanwhile he forgot to mention that they were still bombing the Kabul out of Afghan villagers.
    As for limits to US, so what if they have rolled out 19 new US bases in Central Asia since 2000?
    Helena, you are a geo-strategic scholar, living near and sometimes in Washington, what do you say to Neville’s suggestion of a secret long-term US plan for world domination on a new basis?

  3. Domza

    Please, I have a post in the moderator pipeline for some reason. There is nothing wrong with the post.
    Please release it. It contains a request for advice form yourself, Helena.

  4. omop

    JohnH.
    It all began with what Israel deemed the US policy in the ME should be. Some years ago Bernard Lewis, an Eglishh historian suggested that Israel’s safety could only come about if the Arab/Muslim nations were subdivided into “small/manageable” states.
    Hence the Likudnik influenced policies of the US towards the Arab/Muslim nations.
    A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, commonly referred to as the “Clean Break” report, was prepared in 1996 by a study group led by Richard Perle for Benjamin Netanyahu, the then-Prime Minister of Israel.
    The report explained a new approach to solving Israel’s security problems in the Middle East with an emphasis on “Western values”. It has since been criticized for advocating an aggressive new policy.
    “Moving to a Traditional Balance of Power Strategy”
    “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq — an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right — as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”
    “Since Iraq’s future could affect the strategic balance in the Middle East profoundly, it would be understandable that Israel has an interest in supporting the Hashemites in their efforts to redefine Iraq,including such measures as: visiting Jordan as the first official state visit, even before a visit to the United States, of the new Netanyahu government; supporting King Hussein by providing him with some tangible security measures to protect his regime against Syrian subversion; encouraging — through influence in the U.S. business community — investment in Jordan to structurally shift Jordan’s economy away from dependence on Iraq; and diverting Syria’s attention by using Lebanese opposition elements to destabilize Syrian control of Lebanon. .. Were the Hashemites to control Iraq, they could use their influence over Najf to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizballah, Iran, and Syria.

  5. Alexno

    I thought Steve Clemons’ point was not about the existence of limits on US power, but rather about their exposure for all the world to see. Committing US strength to pointless wars of little direct benefit to the US, with nothing left over for other possible crises, as US competitors can now clearly see.
    But even that is not new. We’ve been saying it here for at least two years.
    Is it that it has become more obvious because US capacity has declined even further? With the credit crunch? Or is it that growing isolationism in the US tends to make people want to throw in the towel, and leave the rest of the world to get on with itself?

  6. David

    The limits of power have been obvious for a long time. The US invasion of Vietman, Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The necessay requirments for the use of power were spelled out by others but most recently by Colin Powell in the Powell doctrine.
    It’s so obvious the only surprising thing is that so many supposely bright people don’t see it.

  7. Shirin

    Some years ago Bernard Lewis, an Eglishh historian suggested that Israel’s safety could only come about if the Arab/Muslim nations were subdivided into “small/manageable” states.
    Bernard Lewis is a bit of a wack job.

  8. Warren L

    The U.S. is definitely on the decline (in the bigger picture). The decline of the dollar is partly a symptom of the fact we’ve become a kind of huge economic Potemkin village, we’ve pretty much gutted our industrial, manufacturing infrastructure, and exist largely on debt and the attractive massiveness of our consumer economy.
    Because we’re such a big market and an unprecedented military behemoth, we have to be reckoned with, but we’re heading down. The advantage Europe has over us in this regard, is that unlike us, they haven’t totally dismantled their industrial/manufacturing base. That’s one reason the Euro is and will likely remain stronger and more stable than the dollar, their economies aren’t this monstrous parasitic debt economy like ours, thus they are more structurally balanced and healthy (although the recession is obviously hitting everyone hard).

  9. Warren L

    I hope the connection between what I said above and the issue of our presence in Afghanistan and the maintenance of Empire is obvious. It should be.
    Maintaining “successful” military power (whatever that really means) would seemingly require actual discretionary resources.

  10. David

    Warren L,
    No the connection isn’t obvious, at least not to me. The limits of our military power would be the same if we were fighting the war in Afghanistan 50 years ago when our industrial base was the envy of the world or 100 years ago.
    Ancient Rome had no limits on it’s military power as it could just sell an entire people into salavery, sow the ground with salt so nothing more would grow and decree that all the maps in the world should be changed so even the name of the country would be forgotten. But that would be unacceptable today.
    And that’s why, despite my support of Israel, it should be obvious to everyone that Israel can’t maintain the occupation of the West Bank. They can’t do what the Romans could did. (And to pre-empt the critics – Israels actions do not even begin to approach that of the Romans.)

  11. Warren L

    David, you make a good point. I basically agree. Our occupation of Afghanistan is morally unacceptable as well as strategically ridiculous and fool-hardy. This would be the same even if we were at the height of our power and influence (beam back to 1955). Great powers in their prime couldn’t “tame” Afghanistan, nor why should any of us? We have no right to be there as an occupier, telling them what to do.
    I was speaking mainly to our general decline in influence and power, which has an important economic component frankly. But your point is the more important one, thanks for the nuance.

  12. Andrew

    What the holy HECK?? JohnH and Warren L, is it a mere oversight on your parts that nowhere in any of these posts do I see mention of the fact that we went in against Afghanistan because the Taliban had hosted Osama bin Laden, and his training camps for the perpetrators of 9/11?
    That is the reason why we went in to Afghanistan, and it’s a perfectly sound reason. If someone blows up 3000 of our people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then yes, we will defend ourselves by attacking their training camps.
    As to the fact that there was no workable long-term plan for occupation and withdrawal, or the fact that the Iraq War never had any such sound reason underpinning it, I agree. I also found historian Bernard Lewis’s advice on the CURRENT middle east situation to be bad, although his works on the area’s history in centuries past are justly well-regarded by many historians.
    But what on earth could prompt you to sweep the reason for the Afghan invasion under the rug completely, unless you wanted to comment in bad faith? Were you seriously unaware that the invasion was a response to 9-11, and that there was completely valid evidence that al Qaeda had training camps there, and that this would therefore be self-defense against them? Or did you ignore this because you feel that such acts of self-defense are never warranted?
    Our behavior in foreign policy has quite often been offensive. In this case, Al Qaeda attacked us, murdering 3000 people, and the Afghanis helped them to do it, and we hadn’t attacked them. The only way we’d seriously offended bin Laden OR the Afghanis was to site military bases near Mecca. If that is offensive enough to justify a joint Afghani-Al Qaeda murder of 3000 innocent civilians, then it would make as much sense to advise the Europeans to plan a 9-11 against us too, since we have military bases there.
    I don’t invoke 9-11 lightly, and it doesn’t justify the Iraq War. But don’t you sweep it under the rug, either. It DID justify the Afghan invasion, unless 9-11 was a total fake.

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