The International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in London, modestly calls itself "the world's leading authority on politico-military conflict."
Not many experts would disagree. Its renown stems in part from being privately supported and free of politics. The IISS was particularly valuable during the Cold War, especially for journalists during the Reagan administration when Pentagon and CIA assessments of Soviet military strength proved wildly inaccurate.
The just-published "Strategic Survey 2003/4" gives the IISS view of how the war in Iraq has altered the world's balance of forces. It directly contradicts Bush administration claims that its war would reduce the threat of terrorism.
"Overall," states the IISS, "risks of terrorism to Westerners and Western assets in Arab countries appeared to increase after the Iraq war began."
In its recent report, the State Department tried to deny a rise in terrorist acts last year, only to have the report challenged by experts as false. It is now revising it to show a significant rise in terrorism last year.
It helps to see ourselves as others see us. Fed a steady diet of Bush propaganda on Iraq about weapons of mass destruction, fighting terrorism, building democracy, saving Iraqis from genocide and remaking the Middle East, we get from the IISS a different perspective.
It describes Bush's goal in blunt terms: "With the military invasion and occupation, the United States sought to change the political status quo in the Arab world to advance American strategic and political interests."
In other words, the war and occupation are an imperial power grab.
What's wrong with that, you ask? What's the point of being the only superpower if you can't throw your weight around? What's wrong with seeking to advance U.S. strategic and political interests in the Arab world?
The IISS response is that the war and occupation have backfired in several ways:
They have enhanced al-Qaeda's "jihadist recruitment" and intensified its "motivation to encourage and assist terrorist operations," for example, the recent train attacks in Madrid that led to a change in Spain's government.
They have "sapped the U.S. of much of its diplomatic energies with the result that there has been under-investment in the Middle East (Israeli-Palestinian) peace process."
In what is the most damning criticism, John Chipman, the IISS director, states that the Iraq war has damaged America's reputation, which is central to power.
"The United States is finding it difficult to balance the exercise of its power with the retention of its prestige. . . . The present U.S. administration is becoming acutely aware of the fact that reputation, prestige and power can easily be squandered through mismanaged interventions and peacekeeping operations."
To this I would add a fourth way in which Iraq has led to unanticipated results: The shift of U.S. military forces out of Europe, Saudi Arabia and South Korea – a direct result of Bush's war – is being undertaken in unfavorable circumstances.
It may well be time to begin such shifts, which will have significant consequences. But they should be undertaken on the basis of regional power balances and interests, not as a result of overextension of U.S. military forces caused by the Iraq war.
America doubly loses if it shifts forces from environments where they are needed to cover for a war and occupation in Iraq gone wrong.
The "Strategic Survey's" assessment of America's loss of reputation and prestige under the Bush administration is born out by statistics from two recent opinion surveys carried out overseas, by the Pew Research Center, and by Globescan and the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.
Both surveys found that opinions of America around the world had plummeted over Iraq. In the Globescan-PIPA survey, which included nearly 19,000 people from 19 nations, only 37 percent said the United States has a positive effect on the world. Pew's survey, released in March, stated that "A year after the war in Iraq, discontent with American and its policies has intensified rather than diminished."
Both these surveys were conducted before the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos were shown around the world. Even now, stories continue to surface about top-level Bush administration memos and directives justifying the use of illegal torture and humiliation measures against prisoners as a means of interrogation.
Even as a partial transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government takes place this month – which could have a positive effect – the damage done to America's power, prestige and reputation around the world by Bush's war stands out.
The IISS puts it well:
"Unfortunately, too many bad traces have been left recently, and many good ones will be needed for the U.S. to recover its reputation, its prestige and therefore effective power."
The IISS provides a needed dose of reality. It is not the message one hears from the U.S. or British governments, but it is likely to be, as during the Cold War, the one closest to the truth.
© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.