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America - a world unto itself

By Paul Dibb - posted Monday, 29 January 2007

Whatever the outcome of the latest increase in US troop numbers in Iraq, the time has come for us to ask why the Americans are so bad at foreign policy. How come the world's most powerful country has failed so badly in Iraq?

The issue here is not America's awesome war machine. Let's remember that it only took three weeks of shock and awe to thoroughly defeat Saddam Hussein's ramshackle army. But here we are almost four years after that victory, and there is simply no end in sight to the horrendous conflict.

We all know that part of the problem was poor post-war planning: dismantling Saddam's army and security forces, refusing to employ former members of the Baathist party, and a lack of clear ideas on how to build democracy.


It also seems that US troops have forgotten what they had learned about counterinsurgency tactics (not least, how to win hearts and minds) in Vietnam more than 30 years ago.

But the US is good, very good, at conventional war. It is poor, very poor, at counterinsurgency warfare and post-war reconstruction of a defeated country. As in the Vietnam War, too few US troops in Iraq speak the local language or bother to understand the local culture.

In Iraq as well as Vietnam, the governments the Americans tried to help proved inadequate. Neither the one in Baghdad nor the one in Saigon gained the legitimacy to inspire its troops. And this proved to be the fundamental problem in both wars.

People such as Condoleezza Rice proclaimed that bringing democracy to Iraq would be like bringing democracy to defeated Germany and Japan after World War II. But these two countries, unlike Iraq, are not artificial constructs whose borders were dreamed up by colonial powers. There was a strong sense of nationhood intact in Germany and Japan after the war.

That is not the case in Iraq, which faces the prospect of ending up torn apart into separate warring provinces, like the former Yugoslavia.

And where were the US State Department advisers and National Security Council staff when it came to warning George W. Bush that a weak and defeated Iraq would inevitably lead to Iran becoming the dominant power in the region?


President George H.W. Bush did not allow his victorious army to march into Baghdad in the 1991 Gulf war, not least because he did not want to see Iran become the strongest power in the Middle East.

And yet that is precisely what is happening. The US has exchanged a relatively stable Middle East, with a constrained Iraq, for a region that will be dominated by a nuclear-armed and ambitious Iran ruled by extremist Islamic clerics.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies has recently observed that the US and its allies were blinded by possibilities in Iraq, such as freeing the Iraqi people from a brutal regime, ensuring that a hostile dictator did not possess weapons of mass destruction and creating a democratic government in the Middle East.

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First published in The Australian as 'The view is hazy from the freeway' on January 22, 2007.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Dibb, former deputy secretary of defence and director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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