The United States today is discovering what other great powers have found before it, which is that military victories can have results quite opposite to those intended. The world has not been made more pliant and respectful by a demonstration of American might, but is, on the contrary, more recalcitrant, sulky, and difficult than it was before the war.
That recalcitrance is visible in many ways and at many levels, from the violence on the streets of Fallujah or Tel Aviv to the stubborn Israeli reinterpretations of American policy issuing forth in Jerusalem, from the sharp criticism of American pretensions heard in Moscow to the more muted defiance of France and Germany in Brussels, and from the fire fights on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to the verbal fisticuffs at the talks between the United States and North Korea in Beijing.
President Bush, declaring the war against Iraq to be over, cannot help but suggest that large dividends for all are to be expected. Such dividends may in time emerge, by design or by accident. But what is not now evident is any extra readiness to take notice of what America says or wants. Or, rather, there may be more notice taken, but it is matched by an additional degree of determination to oppose or subvert American purposes. Syria may regret its wartime statements and move to expel members of the Iraqi regime who took refuge there, but that does not mean it will give in on matters more closely affecting its interests.
North Korea may have agreed, in part, to come to the negotiating table because of the American victory in Iraq, but, once there, it not only restated its known demands but actually expanded them. Israel and the Palestinians both signal their intention of following the road map, but the Israelis, at least, have long been redrawing it in private to suit their purposes, and are now doing so in public. In Europe and in Russia, the reaction to American policies seems almost worse than it was before the war, and certainly worse than it was just after the fall of Baghdad, when an Atlantic reconciliation seemed closer.
To understand why, it is necessary to begin with the proposition that the US has been weakened rather than strengthened by the Iraq war.
First, it was the only occasion since Vietnam that America has failed to carry its allies with it in a big enterprise, a stunning diplomatic failure. It now seems possible that it will deepen that failure by refusing to make the gestures needed to repair some of the damage.
Second, America has acquired a greatly increased responsibility for the future of Iraq, and of the wider region, which it cannot easily shed, and that will be true however quickly, or however belatedly, its administrators and troops leave Mesopotamia. This responsibility may not be a curse, but it is already clear that it is far from a blessing.
Whenever the phase of direct American administration ends, it is obvious that the US wants to maintain a long-term political, corporate, and military presence in Iraq. To do so effectively and without reducing Iraq to transparent client status is not going to be easy. Indeed it may be simply impossible and, if so, an American defeat of large proportions lies ahead.
Thirdly, it is in the process of losing, or it may already have done so, the possibility of sharing responsibility for Iraq with friendly countries because of its refusal to make a few concessions, symbolic rather than substantive, over the role of the UN. That threatens to leave America more on its own with its Iraqi burden. Not completely alone, because other states and the UN recognize a responsibility and do not want a complete break with Washington, but nevertheless it is America which will be left holding the difficult baby.
Who now imagines, for instance, that Nato troops will be in Iraq soon to help the Americans as peacekeepers, a possibility that seemed not too remote only a couple of weeks ago? That underlines a fourth way in which America has been weakened, which is that it is militarily overstretched and in need of a long rest.
Finally, America is weak because it has failed to develop what the historian of American foreign policy, Walter Russell Mead, calls "a coherent, politically sustainable strategy for American world leadership in peacetime". The Bush administration is split much more profoundly on foreign policy than the usual picture of neo-conservatives versus Colin Powell would suggest.
A diplomatic dance since the fall of Baghdad has seen those American allies who opposed the war take a few guarded steps toward Washington. America wanted the money in the UN's Oil for Food fund and the legal right to control and sell Iraq's oil to pass back to Baghdad. Reasonable prices for that, most agreed, could include all or some of the following: the UN resuming arms inspections, taking a part in the political reconstruction of Iraq, and co-ordinating humanitarian aid. But the Bush administration's view seems to be that in defeating Iraq, it also defeated opponents of the war. UN "help", yes, in the American sense of service, but anything that appears to cede even nominal control to the UN over any aspect of the work in Iraq, no.
Indeed, for some in the administration the question is how and to what extent members of the anti-war league, and, in particular France, should be punished. Although there are important technical arguments about the UN in Iraq, the primary issue is symbolic. In no way would power in Iraq, such as it is, pass from America to the UN if the UN took up the duties envisaged. France and the others wanted a symbolic concession to their view of the world in return for their symbolic concession to the administration's view of the world. It doesn't appear they are going to get it. Hence Tony Blair's unpleasant passage in Moscow, when Vladimir Putin responded to the British prime minister's peroration about the need to heal divisions essentially by saying that the fault lay with an America that would not respond to overtures from Europe and Russia rather than the other way round.
Even the European and Russian rebels are not strong in the positive sense, being less than united in the extent to which they oppose Washington, and having no viable alternative schemes for the world, as the rather pathetic defense summit this week of France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg illustrated. Still less links them with China or India, or with countries on the American enemies list like Iran, Syria or North Korea, except the sense that America is a lot weaker than it looks, and capable of making things worse for itself.
The truth is that a weakened America faces a weak world, not the best combination imaginable for the 21st century.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003