June 1, 2007  

Rebuilding America’s image

Looking beyond the debacle in Iraq

Is there a responsible and wise American leader who could plan or even seriously contemplate whither this nation should head after Iraq? Should America focus on regaining the global leadership status and stature it once held unquestionably, if by tacit concessions, after the Cold War? That is, toward possible peace in the world, as well as legitimately striving for U.S. supremacy in the global economy and the safekeeping of freedom it professes?

An overwhelming answer today would be, "We must first end the Iraq war." No one seems to bother or even be able to think beyond the Iraq war. The war — as perceived in the context of the "We’re at war" administration incessancy, "Global War on Terror" banner, four-year accumulated and still-mounting American and Iraqi casualties, "Long War" prediction of the Pentagon, and politically hyped "surge" or "withdrawal deadline/benchmarks" standoff in Washington, ad infinitum — is consuming the zeitgeist and psyche of America.

That is, except for the rare likes of paradoxically military-trained, global-strategic thinkers such as retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who judges the White House’s "surge" call a tactical and nonstrategic solution. Even Gen. David Petraeus — seemingly unfairly ordered into the middle of the war as the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, ostensibly to shoulder the White House-conceived "surge" strategy and now being made the raison d’etre for the war-funding increase — seems to imply his doubt when he says the war strategy could be "intellectually debatable or maybe not intellectually debatable."

The general, who has a Ph.D. in political science, adds that there are two separate issues: "the military mission and the policy-making from which the mission emanates." Recently, three retired generals have declined the White House’s offer of the "war czar" position to oversee U.S. war policy at the nation’s highest level, because members of the Bush administration "don’t know where they are going."

Ending the Iraq war is a policy decision and not a mere military outcome of victory or defeat. One lesson a leader of the nation at war or of the superpower must mind is: War is but an instrument of policy. It is one unflinching doctrine drilled into the future military leaders in this nation’s service war colleges. This fundamental and universal doctrine of rational geopolitics and diplomacy is being dangerously ignored by the self-justifying political "intellectuals" on both sides of the arguments on how to end the Iraq war.

One side reasonably concludes that the war is not militarily winnable but advocates an equally implausible "political" solution of demanding the fledgling, civil-war-festering and effectively mere namesake "Iraqi" government to stand up and take over. That is but another futile tactical solution, oblivious of the need for an astute and robust geostrategic policy over the entire Middle East region of relevance and defining and using militarily winnable missions.

The other side’s argument is a complete reversal of the "war as an instrument of policy" dictum. It justifies war, i.e., continuing and even escalating it, on the basis of the military "need" — albeit a real need as an unfortunate result of a failed policy. It is a blatant case of using instrument to drive policy. Thus, one only sees the mighty America mired totally in piecing together a tactical solution, and has yet to see even an inkling of a comprehensive and transcending U.S. policy to lead the world out of the convoluted instability and apprehensions across the globe.


That said, at least, the perspective of the national populace is now tilted toward ending the stymied war. America’s "government of the people" democracy, in November, demonstrated the smart way this nation adjusts its course when enough concerned citizens question the obviously failed policy and wisdom of the incumbent presidency. That is, without resorting to a disruptive process of impeachment but in a matter-of-fact manner akin to the parliamentary system’s institutional vote of (no) confidence.

The usually local-politics-based midterm election became a national referendum on the administration’s since-proven-implausible rationale for and the consequential demise of the unilateral use of superpower military merely to depose an infamous but nonetheless regional despot. The single overriding issue indeed was Iraq. But Americans in quiet (voting booth) deliberation even astutely separated the Iraq issue from the politically exploited "war on terror" mantra. Americans’ universal patriotism and indignation for American (as well as Iraqi) casualties in the ill-reasoned war have now risen above the dubiousness of political rhetoric. If the Americans could stay the course with constructive public opinions and engender a smart diplomacy, a possibly emerging worldwide reassessment of Americans as a whole in a living democracy may not be too insignificant a serendipitous outcome.

Operation Iraqi Freedom was touted to liberate Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s oppression — never mind that the "Iraqis" consist of historically feuding ethnic factions and convoluted internecine sectarian differences. The fact, or more importantly, the local and world-at-large judgment, is that the superpower U.S. pre-emptively invaded and occupied a sovereign (albeit rogue) state, caused its disintegration into a state of civil war, invited an influx of foreign jihadist terrorist factions and turned the entire country into an unprecedented killing field of civilian-shielded insurgencies.

U.S. political leaders, regardless of who they might be for the foreseeable future, will have no choice but to be honorably accountable for the past four and some years of failed American policy, and to attempt to rebuild the Iraqi state for the Iraqi people and for the world’s vested interest in Middle Eastern peace. This inescapable U.S. responsibility of Iraq restitution clearly would require a long, damaging and costly process that might even be unachievable in the end. Thus, it is imperative that there be a strategic, i.e., comprehensive, long-lasting and globally acceptable, approach to U.S. policy in the Middle East and any critical extended areas. Such policy then has to transcend far beyond the Iraq reparation and, most importantly, to the restoration of U.S. national influence across the world.


By far the gravest consequence of the Iraq invasion policy is the obvious loss of American prestige and credibility across the globe as a historically established, benevolent defender of peace and freedom. Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek calls it "total collapse of the image abroad." The superpower leverage the U.S. held since the Soviet Union-defaulted end of the Cold War seems to have wilted under the miscalculated war policy. The rising opportunistic and defiant (nuclear) threat wielding from several less-than-major nations, such as North Korea and Iran, signals their perception of reduced U.S. power projection. Spreading self-protective and less-than-cooperative stances of the usual U.S. allies, as well as nations with normalized relations such as Russia and China — if only to express their distaste for American unilateralism and patronizing posture — also indicate the diminished U.S. influence.

Clearly, a major reassessment of the geopolitical strategy of the U.S. is needed. In fact, national influence, which may be characterized as a concerted and deliberate effort to build and use the nation’s image and eminence for geostrategic purposes, could in the long run be the intrinsic — and the only satisfactory — "exit strategy" for the U.S. solution of the Iraq debacle.

America’s chance of success for such national influence could be serendipitously plausible. Except for the stalemate in the straitened warfare against civilian-disguised insurgencies, the U.S. still holds the de facto unchallenged military superiority, as well as the economic lead over any single dominant nation or union of nations. The new century’s infectious and contentious phenomenon of globalization and the ubiquitous regional instabilities in the absence of identified global-level superpower policing underscore a need for an intrinsic leader in the world to restore the sense of orientation and peace.

And why should the U.S. not step up to the role? Harvard University’s Joseph Nye Jr. suggests, "American culture has greater global reach and soft power than any other country" and "in an imperfect world, American leadership is crucial." But such a leadership could come only from an extraordinary soft power that commands unfettered respect — if not an agreeable friendship nor even agreement on matters of life. Peoples and nations must be convinced that America is not only more capable, i.e., powerful, and with good intentions, but indeed is a smart and mature nation. The respect for that intellectual edge in diplomacy then would logically be based on those nations’ trust in America for what it says and does.


Unfortunately, the U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic attitude of the current administration have characteristically been of the eye-for-eye combative or argumentative posture vis-à-vis the opposing or otherwise involved rest of the world. The posture is unbecoming of an intellectually and materially superlative and, most of all, self-confident leader nation. In addition, the prevalent governing style of heavy reliance on the political-campaign-style, one-sided rhetoric and rigidly orchestrated public appearance, thus cornering "ourselves" into a day-to-day reactive diplomatic modus operandi, is counterproductive when that degrades the perception of national sincerity and dignity.

Nations in crisis assume the personas of the leader at the time — as Churchill at "England’s finest hour," Roosevelt on the "day of infamy" or Reagan "addressing" the Berlin Wall. National influence emanates from and, therefore, takes a great man or lady of the nation who earns an unquestionable reverence of the troubled world. Once so impressed, the world’s memory of the legacy lingers on. That, on the flip side, applies as well to a "total collapse of image abroad" as in the Iraq war — the likely unfortunate legacy of President George W. Bush.

If so, a sea change in the American personas and attitude in the basic foreign policy and diplomacy is needed. And that means America as represented or, more precisely, symbolized by the unique office of the president of the United States in person must change. That is, from the image of America as just another contentious, power-wielding and intellectually undisciplined nation to a smart superpower genuine and able enough to benevolently lead the world.

Could the nation achieve this in the next quadrennial regime change, i.e., the presidential election, to select a great person for America’s national influence for the rest of the 21st century? The prevalent political wrangling and resultant divisiveness mirror the short-ranged outlook, if not the "smallness," of the American politicians on their stature as global leaders. Thus, at this point, we may be helplessly back to getting over the Iraq debacle. Here, in contrast to drawing accusatory parallel references to the Vietnam guerrilla war, a lesson may be drawn from the truly successful engineering of the victory over Imperial Japan in World War II, which turned the diametrically committed total war of nations to the history of the most successful ceasefire and ensuing peace, freedom and international alliance. The Truman administration astutely persuaded the allied powers to accept Japan’s only condition of preserving the imperial system for the "unconditional" surrender. Later historical records reveal the pure and sole intent of Emperor Hirohito to "preserve the Japanese nation" through surrender — a theretofore unrecognized word in the Japanese history of 2,600 years. And that was in face of the threatened coup d’etat by the Imperial army insurgency faction that vowed to fight to the last man, i.e., of Japanese populace.

Should not the U.S. be concerned — rather than over a regime change in Iraq to the American-style "political" system and a military victory face-saving by "killing" the oft-unidentifiable insurgency "extremists" — about letting the Iraqi people save their nation as they see fit, in their own context of the longer-than-American history, unique ethnic relations and deeply imbedded religious beliefs?

America must end the war it started but, most importantly, rebuild its image and its destined role of leading the world into peace and freedom for all.

Thomas S. Momiyama is a retired U.S. Navy Department Senior Executive Service member and a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.