by Larry Smith
"The United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative." -- Winston Churchill.
A collection of elder statesmen in the US have concluded that the "grave and deteriorating" situation in Iraq requires a radical new approach. And that could lead to a big rethink of how America behaves in the world, especially following the Republican defeat in the recent mid-term elections.
There is little doubt that the aggressive unilateralism of President George W Bush has alienated allies and damaged American interests around the world. Some have described Dubya as "arguably the worst president since the US became a world power" - an opinion borne out by his plummeting popularity. Question is, what happens now in terms of America's relations with the rest of the world?
Any attempt to answer that must take a long view. This administration's Iraq policy is the most muscular expression of American strategic power since the end of the Vietnam War. And that tragic conflict marked the limits of American power at the height of the East-West conflict.
According to Robert McNamara, the defence secretary who ran the Vietnam War, "We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions." That must be what Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary who ran the Iraq war, meant when he referred to "unknown unknowns."
American involvement in Vietnam began in 1950, when it was still under French control. US ground forces were introduced in 1965 and left in 1973. And two years later the heirs of Ho Chi Minh achieved what they had been fighting for since the Second World War - national unification and independence under their leadership.
Originally, the war was seen as an essential part of the US grand strategy of containing Soviet expansionism. After the success of the 1949 communist revolution in China and the Soviet-sponsored aggression in Korea, the fear of losing other countries in Asia to communism - known as the domino theory - led directly to US intervention in Vietnam.
But it is now clear that Vietnam did not affect America's vital security interests - as President Bill Clinton's official visit to Hanoi a decade ago confirmed. And Ho Chi Minh was well within his rights to assume leadership of his country after the Japanese defeat in World War Two - something which the French refused to countenance, while the British and Americans unfortunately looked the other way.
Interestingly, although the war in Iraq is being prosecuted by conservative idealists while the war in Vietnam was waged by liberal realists, the results appear to be the same. In 1967, Martin Luther King delivered a speech on the Vietnam tragedy that explains the similarity:
"We unilaterally launched an all-out war on Asian soil. In the process we have undermined the purpose of the United Nations and caused its effectiveness to atrophy. We have also placed our nation in the position of being morally and politically isolated."
Foreign policy realists treat the world as it is rather than as they would wish it to be. They say we must engage with our enemies as well as our friends to promote peace and order through an international balance of power. And the evil character of a regime should not preclude our engagement with it.
During the Cold War, this realist view led to American support of an array of nasty dictatorships around the world - from the Shah's Iran, to Duvalier's Haiti, to Pinochet's Chile, to Fuentes' Guatemala, Somoza's Nicaragua and Diem's South Vietnam.
The Vietnam War cost billions and killed more than 5 million Vietnamese and some 60,000 American and allied personnel. Yet despite the expenditure of all that blood and treasure, it is now seen as a stupid mistake.
Those who guide the Bush Administration's foreign policy are considered idealists rather than balance of power realists. They use a moral compass and see the promotion of democracy and the elimination of evil regimes as central to the creation of a better and more peaceful world. And they favour a strong unliateralist approach to security issues - including preventive war.
In this context, the invasion of Iraq was meant to be a transforming event - unseating a ruthless dictator, who was determined to possess weapons of mass destruction, and bringing democracy to a dangerous region. So far the war has cost $400 billion and killed more than 3,000 US and coalition troops and an estimated 50,000 plus Iraqis. And we are already beginning to regard this war as a mistake too.
Rather than creating a stable and democratic Middle East, the American occupation of Iraq looks likely to increase extremism and undermine the US role in the world. That is especially so if - as Zbigniew Brzezinski recently said - nothing is done to address the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations or to engage diplomatically with Iran. Ironically, Brzezinski was US national security advisor during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
Perhaps the Bush Administration's most grievous foreign policy error was its calculated snubbing of the United Nations in the belief that the US was powerful enough to do whatever it wanted in the world. And while the UN can rightly be considered an expensive and corrupt joke much of the time, it remains an important tool in world affairs.
As outgoing secretary-general Kofi Annan put it recently, all governments must be accountable for their actions. But large and powerful states, whose actions have the greatest impact on others, have a special responsibility to take account of global views and interests:
"How can states hold each other to account? Only through multilateral institutions. Americans, like the rest of humanity, need a functioning global system. Experience has shown, time and again, that the system works poorly when the United States remains aloof but it functions much better when there is farsighted US leadership."
American intervention in Iraq was designed as a show of force to impress countries around the world, including states like Iran and Syria. In fact, it has had quite the opposite effect, emboldening the Iranians to pursue a nuclear option while forcing the US to recognize the limits of its power to act unilaterally.
This is not entirely a good thing. It will be much more difficult for any US administration to engage in moral or humanitarian interventions for some time, and the very desirable goal of promoting democratic values around the world is also likely to ebb. There is the danger that America will become more isolationist and protectionist, which may not please many of those who condemn the US today.
But the future of American foreign policy is more likely to be determined by its oil addiction. The fact that the Middle East contains two-thirds of the world's oil makes it increasingly important. And protecting the world's oil supply accounts for a large share of US military resources, while oil imports account for a third of the US trade deficit.
As demand grows and reserves dwindle, the US will become more reliant for its energy needs on the unstable nations of the Middle East. That's why a group of top businessmen and retired generals are calling for a national plan to dramatically reduce America's oil dependency. And guess what? One of the chief recommendations is to encourage burden sharing with allies and partners by focusing on multilateral security arrangements.
That is a far cry from the Bush doctrine of "don't mess with Texas".