Remember when the Bush administration launched its "shock and awe" campaign across Iraq?
Even hardened critics were left starstruck watching the bombs rain down on Baghdad and other targets three years ago this week. It was as if the United States were flaunting its firepower while saying to hostile states and forces around the world: This is what happens to you when you mess with us.
The Pentagon was testing a theory developed seven years earlier by a small team of U.S. National Defense University authors. "The aims of this doctrine are to apply massive or overwhelming force as quickly as possible," the authors wrote. "While there are surely humanitarian considerations that cannot or should not be ignored, the ability to shock and awe ultimately rests in the ability to frighten, scare, intimidate, and disarm" the enemy's will.
It seemed to work at first, as supporters boldly proclaimed we had both won a war and taught the Mideast a lesson. And we did so, or so we thought, by beating the Saddam out of Iraq. "[T]he comatose and glazed expressions of survivors of the great bombardments of World War I," wrote the authors, was exactly the kind of effect on the adversary they proposed.
But the doctrine was even more ambitious. Much the way a schoolyard bully might pummel one smaller kid to send a message to the rest, its proponents wrote that the impressive display of force would compel not only the targeted nation but other states as well to fall into line. This helps explain why the administration thought that the messy politics of Iraq along with the entangled mosaic of the region were not much to worry about, as the other states would all end up coming at least a little more our way once they got wind of shock and awe.
But the doctrine failed its first field test, while the arrogance it dropped on Iraq has since given rise to contingencies its proponents never saw. Far from making Iraqis more pliant, shock and awe helped foment an insurgency that shows no sign of going away, besides helping to uncork sectarian strife that the administration also grossly underestimated. The same hubris has further increased sympathy for al-Qaida in many nations while it has helped Saddam Hussein turn his murder trial into a stage to rally insurgents against the U.S.-led occupation.
Instead of learning to fear us, as the Bush administration's war planners had hoped, the world now understands that even the tallest of giants can end up bogged down, if not crippled, no matter how fierce it starts out. In a world as complex as ours, military strength is only a part of even our nation's overall power. Instead of the kind of decisive, demonstrative victory the administration expected, the legacy of shock and awe may be that being mean and dumb doesn't work.
One lesson we could yet learn is as simple as: The politics matter, stupid. Trying to bully a whole nation along with a region into submission could end up backfiring on us. Showing off our high-tech muscle on even the most despised despotic regime may only result in turning countless people there and elsewhere against us.
Of course, it is never too late to change. But we have to start with our attitude. Arguably, such a transformation is already under way, although the administration would be the last to admit it. Last week, both the United States and Iran announced that, despite their many disagreements, it is finally time after decades of no diplomatic contact to open talks. Now that we know that shock and awe didn't scare the Ayatollahs, either, we've learned the hard way that we have to treat them, like other people, with respect whether we like them or not.
The same goes for Iraq. Having failed to subdue seemingly any sizable part of the population in the long run, we now know that we need to reach out to not only those Iraqis more or less on our side but also to the leaders of the insurgency whom we still hope to bring into the political process. One might call it bunker diplomacy. Instead of walking tall across the battlefield in the wake of shock and awe, we are the ones looking besieged and desperate for a way out.
Despite the grandiosity America sported when we invaded Iraq, the giant that the administration tried to project there sure looks weaker now. It all comes back to basics. The bully may well beat up one kid after another - only to find himself alone, surrounded by ever more people who hate him and hope, if not plot, for his demise.
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who is writing a book on the 1991 uprisings agaisnt Saddam Hussein.
© 2006 Newsday Inc.