The Washington Times

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been on a steep learning curve on the subject of its own power and role in the world. In the rush of events, it’s easy to lose sight of how much has changed and how slow we have sometimes been in understanding it. Only now, I think, as we deal with the aftermath of Iraq, is the picture of our recent past coming clearly into focus.

The early days of the 1990s, the first phase of the learning curve, were marked by profound confusion and uncertainty about the new configuration of world politics. The first President Bush’s controversial yearning for a “new world order” was an indication that while the past was truly past, the present was at best murky.

Were the changes in Russia permanent, or would Russia revert to a post-communist anti-Western posture? How long would it take for other blocs to form to balance the power of the remaining superpower? How quickly would others step up to assert the leadership roles they said they desired in areas where the United States claimed no “vital interests”? Would the United States find itself missing the discipline that superpower rivalry imposed on the international system?

All of these questions, which now sound so dated, were the daily stuff of the op-ed pages. I think the quotation that best sums up this period is from the first President Bush’s then-secretary of state, James Baker, who said of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” Used to thinking in hard-headed terms of national interest, Mr. Baker could find none implicated there.

This period came to a close with the American realization that in the absence of U.S. leadership and action, the likely result was not that others would step up, but that whatever bad situation was brewing would further deteriorate. I’d date that realization to the August 1995 bombing of Serb positions in Bosnia that paved the way for the Dayton peace agreement later that year.

Finally, it had dawned: The United States found itself at the head of a unipolar order. American power was unmatched, and yet, there was widespread acquiescence to the dominant U.S. position, at least for the time being. As for potential rivals, on closer inspection their emergence looked to be, at the soonest, far in the future. Across the full range of possible measures, from military power to economic strength to cultural influence, the United States was far ahead and it seemed possible that the lead was increasing.

What was not terribly clear at the time was what challenge might emerge to the U.S. position. It’s not hard to assign the date at which that realization came: September 11, 2001. Suddenly, the United States was confronted with a non-state actor, al Qaeda, with the ability to wreak destruction not only on American targets abroad but on the American homeland. Moreover, the possible link between terrorist organizations and states determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction became a matter of urgent concern, since no one doubted that if al Qaeda got hold of such weapons, it would use them.

The American military swiftly toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in a dazzling display of technological prowess. Then came the making of the case against Saddam Hussein, who was presumed to be too dangerous over time on the basis of his possession of weapons of mass destruction and his interest in acquiring a nuclear capability.

This again, would eventually turn into a display of awesome military prowess. But something else happened, too, I think. And here, the date I would pick is roughly March 1, as U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations fell apart with the inability to win support for another Iraq resolution.

What did we learn then? Well, the United States is predominant, but it does not follow that the United States is unconstrained. Most of the rest of the world may be fairly satisfied with the global security architecture that a relatively passive United States provides, but is deeply uneasy when the it becomes activist. Now, no one can stop the United States. But neither, it seems clear, is everyone obliged to make such interventions easy. And that, in turn, will have a substantial effect on U.S. decision-making.

The embarrassment and confusion over missing weapons of mass destruction speak to another constraint on U.S. power: imperfect information. Policymakers will hereafter act in the knowledge that notwithstanding the most sophisticated intelligence collection apparatus in the world, they may not know as much as they think.

Finally, there is the possibility that, having won the main battle, we are in the early stages of a nasty guerrilla war. Swift victory is not necessarily permanent triumph.

The project of the liberalization of the greater Middle East is no less urgent for the difficulty. But it strikes me as unlikely at this point that anyone is going to get much of a hearing for the proposition that U.S. power will make that transformation easy.