By general consensus (and certainly the consensus of the American electorate), the War in Iraq is not going well, and the Global War on Terror, of which our efforts in Iraq are but a part, looks like it may have limited staying power as a political issue.
I am not a fan of some of the changes that the GWoT has brought about in this country, and it has certainly been used as powerful fodder for demagoguery, but giving up on GWoT (as opposed to rethinking it and altering our approach) is actually a very dangerous outcome.
As the soon-to-be former nation of Iraq continues to dissolve into an extended and ugly civil war, characterized by ruthless sectarian and fratricidal fighting, Americans are losing whatever taste for nation-building they may have once had.
That's another tragic outcome: nation-building, in theory, should actually be one of the best possible defenses against the Chaotic Abyss that is available to us; the problem is that nobody seems to know how to impose democratic structure from the outside in, and it looks increasingly like it may not even be possible. (Supporting organic, native movements for democracy that come from within is a completely different matter--the Kurds built a vibrant tribal democracy very rapidly once we were able to give them a little air cover--but sadly, in the areas of the world that need it most right now, there's no internal movement of any significance to support.)
And so, as a result of the Recent Unpleasantness, trying to export democracy around the world is likely going to be DOA as a foreign policy option for the US for at least a generation. Our good intentions have paved quite a few miles of that particular road to Hell, and not even the most stalwart neoconservative theorists are still marching down it.
So the question now becomes, what do we do?
Belmont Club's Three Conjectures are as true today (actually, given recent events in Iran and North Korea, even truer) as when they were written three years ago:
- Conjecture 1: Terrorism has lowered the nuclear threshold
- Conjecture 2: Attaining WMDs will destroy Islam
- Conjecture 3: The War on Terror is the 'Golden Hour' -- the final chance
Nuclear proliferation, combined with progressively loosening controls over nuclear weapons due to the nature of the increasingly unstable states that acquire them, make it close to a statistical certainty that non-state actors (terrorist groups) will get their hands on one or more nuclear weapons in the near future.
From where I sit, I see very few options open to us that will keep that from happening.
While the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction ought to (and probably will) work as well with small countries, even corrupt and unstable countries, as it did with big ones, it doesn't work at all with stateless entities like terror networks.
And once, e.g., Al Qaeda or a group with similar goals and beliefs acquires nuclear weapons, there is no doubt whatsoever that, once acquired, they will use them. They've said so, and there's no reason to doubt them.
Another interesting feature of stateless enemies is that there is no one with whom to engage in the preferred conflict-resolution mode of liberal democracies, diplomatic negotiations. We can, should and will continue take the fight to the conference tables and meeting halls, for all the good it will do, but it isn't going to produce a solution.
One morning, before very long, we are very likely going to wake up and discover that a big chunk of New York City, or Los Angeles, or Rome, or London, or Berlin, or Moscow, is... gone.
And what will we do then?
To state the problem crudely and succinctly, since there doesn't seem to be any way to deter it, how do you retaliate?
Who the hell do you bomb when that happens?