Much of the debate over Iraq is framed over “perceptions” of power. That is, if we fail, others will immediately capitalize on the newfound sense that the United States is weakened and a window of opportunity has opened up. Lose in Iraq, the conventional wisdom goes, then Iran will accelerate its nuclear acquisition, Syria and Iran will be even more emboldened, Latin America will go even harder left, China will carve out a wider swath, and so on.
But, in fact, I fear it could be worse than that the perception of impotence that galvanizes enemies. If we lost in Iraq and fled, it would not be the perception at all, but the reality of power that would be gone, in the sense the United States would never in our lifetime intervene successfully again on the ground abroad-convinced it would inevitably lose.
I think we are also close to seeing the permanent end of any Anglo-American military collaboration. And there would be legitimate questions raised also whether the U.S. military could win any future war–given the knowledge that, barring some instantaneous victory, the American public would not allow it the time or the latitude to destroy its enemies.
Instead, the blueprint for any further American involvement is the current investigations of Marines in Haditha, the hysteria over an Abu Ghraib, flushed Korans, Bible-quoting generals, and all the other media headline stories that drowned out what we were doing in Iraq. Al Jazeera might prove to be more powerful than the 101st Airborne not just through its shaping of public opinion in the Middle East-but far more here at home in scaring Americans with its power to shape public opinion in the Middle East.
When Mr. Bush contemplates what to do about Iran, he knows–and he knows Iran knows–that we are on the verge right now of a tired American public that winces at the very thought of the media storm, political fury, and wild partisan charges that would accompany any more military reactions. But the next step would be the complete loss of public confidence, in the fashion of the French, that we even could win a war if we had to. And then watch out. Great powers, like the largest animals, have a small central nervous system that directs their enormous limbs and sinews. And when it goes–call it public confidence in one’s civilization–then armies tremor, enervate, and, Europe-like, wither away.