After Iraq

America has had a bruising decade. But do not underestimate either the superpower or its president

Published on The Economist, Aug 26th 2010.

… The wrong turn:

To many Americans, the misadventure in Iraq has come to symbolise a broader wrong turn America made after Osama bin Laden assaulted it on September 11th nine years ago. Nearly six out of ten Americans now say that they oppose even Mr Obama’s “good” war—the one against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. An America that is bleeding economically at home, with unemployment stuck at nearly 10% and debts as tall as the eye can see, is losing confidence in its ability, and perhaps in its need, to shape events in far-flung regions such as Central Asia and the Middle East.

Even in an age of austerity America still towers above all-comers in military power, as well it should given its annual defence spending of $700 billion, almost as much as the rest of the world put together (see article). But the past decade has laid bare the limits of high-tech power. Whizz-bang technology enabled America to conquer Afghanistan and Iraq in the twinkle of an eye with negligible losses. Subduing them has been harder. Of the 2m Americans who have served in the two wars over the past decade, some 40,000 have been wounded and more than 5,000 killed … //

… Still indispensable:

Even that abbreviated list is a heavy burden for a war-weary country struck by its worst recession since the second world war. Many Americans would like the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq to signal the beginning of the end of America’s overall embroilment in the benighted regions of the world. They look with understandable envy on rising powers such as China and India that have devoted the past decade to the serious business of becoming rich. The mistake of Iraq has strengthened the instinct against foreign adventures. But it is no less of a mistake to imagine that the dangers of terrorism, proliferation and war will simply vanish if America were now to walk away from all the bad places. If America does not take on the task of containing such threats, who else will, or can? For all the difficulties at home, the fact remains that the biggest gainer from a strong America abroad is America itself. Whatever his gut tells him, Mr Obama seems to understand that. (full text).

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