The Washington Times

“Is the United States Overstreched?” That’s the subject I had to speak to before a Paris audience last month. Well, even if one was feeling a steady tug on the ankles and a gradual elongation of the spine, one might not want to draw too much attention to the discomfort, either out of a stoic commitment to live through what one must, or in order not to give aid and comfort to those wishing one ill. The French moderator of the panel, a friend of mine, offered an out, namely, that putting the question in terms of an “overstretched” United States seemed somehow characteristically French. But nevertheless, let us say at the start of 2004 in Paris or Washington precisely this: The United States is stretched.

As indeed we should be. It is not often in the course of two years’ time that, in accordance with a bold reorientation of American security doctrine, in response to a threat that has struck America’s own shores, one topples two foreign governments, meanwhile also declaring a new strategy designed to address the root causes of that threat by promoting freedom and liberal democracy in a region of the world that has been singularly resistant to such aspects of modernity.

Yes, the United States has been very busy and is accordingly “stretched.” Now, there are certain things that some would cite as evidence of being “stretched” that strike me as rather dubious: the large U.S. budget deficit, for example [our ability to afford our policies, one way or another, is not in doubt]. And there are certain aspects of the question that are technical in nature: the extent to which our troop deployment in Iraq constrains us from taking military action elsewhere, for example.

But there is not exactly any sign even among hawks of an urgent desire to move on to the next regime change, either. And that in turn points to another way in which the United States is stretched: The Bush administration seems collectively tired, in the manner of someone who has just run a marathon. There is not a lot of oomph left. After an extraordinary burst of energy in response to a truly gut-wrenching challenge, it’s not so much that one wishes to relax but that, being depleted, one must rest to regain strength, if the world only allows it.

War is enormous. And wars change not only the local circumstances of the countries involved, but also the way in which people see their world. When the first Bush administration made the decision to eject Saddam from Kuwait in 1991, it did so on the explicit declaration that territorial expansion by military conquest was unacceptable in the “new world order,” at least if the United States had anything to say about it. And, by and large, the principle stands: Most rulers no longer envision themselves as of the conquering kind.

When it finally became apparent that only force could restrain Slobodan Milosevic within “his” territory in the former Yugoslavia, the international norm in favor of nonintervention in internal affairs gave way to a new norm, at least in the vicinity of Europe, that leaders would be held accountable for what they did to their populations. And Central and Eastern Europe are today democratic and peaceable, not brimming with bloody-minded dictators.

The Afghanistan war was fought in anger, but it was a clear-headed anger. Its message was that governments are accountable in an existential way for what goes on within their borders. It is too soon to say that the lesson has been decisive. But note that no other government has announced that it is stepping up to invite al Qaeda to build replacement facilities for the ones lost in Afghanistan. I think that might have something to do with a more general lesson from the fall of the Taliban.

Iraq is, of course, a work in progress. I am somewhat bored with the argument about what the “real” reason for removing Saddam was. If, in the months and years ahead, numerous dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere decide that they should make it look like they are developing covert programs for the production of weapons of mass destruction and also commence fraternizing with al Qaeda operatives and other terrorist types, then I will concede that the administration’s purpose was wholly muddled and the United States failed to make its point. So far, however, it looks like the point was pretty clear to Col. Gadhafy, at least.

Overstretched? When something is overstretched, it either snaps back or breaks. In the “snap-back” scenario, the United States comes home, puts up a big fence and wishes everyone outside the best of luck. In the “break” scenario, the United States meets its security challenges by venting its expertise in the military arts quite without regard to consequences for others [in Seoul, say, or for civilian populations in a civil war following the toppling of whoever we were having a problem with].

Neither strikes me as terribly likely. We are merely stretched. And good for Paris that that’s all.