Even if President Bush decides to stick by his guns (literally and figuratively) and manages to pull a rabbit out of his hat, I believe that the doctrine that bears his name will be jettisoned by his successor, be he (or she) a Republican or a Democrat. The doctrine's demise will mean there will be no further efforts to defeat terrorism by using force to spread democracy. Chastened by the cost in lives and treasure, a majority of Americans want to withdraw our troops from Iraq, a preference indicating a willingness to accept an ill-defined stalemate (or even defeat) in Iraq. As in the early 1970s, the spirit of our time is "Come Home America." In the view of at least one pundit, "With hindsight we may see 2006 as the end of Pax Americana."
Where does this leave us after Bush's term in office is over? Barring an unpredictable event—in particular, a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 or greater on U.S. soil—the signs point to a retreat to neo-isolationism, as happened after the Vietnam war.
No administration will use neo-isolationism to describe its foreign policy. Whether the next administration is Republican or Democratic, some other word or phrase will be invented to describe a policy that will amount to neo-multilateralism. Whatever it's called, this policy will eschew military interventions carried out unilaterally or by ad hoc coalitions of the willing.
The central feature of neo-multilateralism will be an American rapprochement with the UN, a process that will be made easier by Kofi Annan's departure. Many observers—here and even more so in Europe—will cheer this development, as Gulliver will be chained.
I won't be among them. As most recently evinced by its inaction over Darfur and the watered-down sanctions against Iran (Security Council Resolution 1737), the UN Security Council is structurally incapable of confronting threats to humanity. Whether the issue is genocide carried out by Khartoum or Tehran's nuclear weapons program, the Security Council epitomizes ineffectiveness. Given the agendas of Russia and China, there is no reason to hope that this will change.
Terrorist and militant groups, not just certain governments, will be among the primary beneficiaries of American neo-multilateralism. An America that's tightly-bound to the UN will feel compelled to abide by the rules of international law. These rules are supposed to apply to all parties to a conflict but, in reality, don't. The most recent example of the asymmetric application of international law was this past summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah. The vocal, widespread claim that Israel used "disproportionate force" wasn't matched by outrage over Hezbollah's installation of its rocket-launchers in civilian areas and its intentional targeting of civilians in northern Israel.
Like the UN Charter, the rules of war—in particular, rules of engagement—were agreed upon at a time when warfare meant fighting among states. That isn't the type of conflict present in today's world, nor is it likely to be in the foreseeable future. Instead, asymmetric warfare pitting a state against terrorist and militant groups will continue to be the most frequent type of violence.
As I discussed in considerable detail in an earlier post, the U.S., in order to minimize civilian casualties in Iraq, has conformed to strict rules of engagement. I concluded that post with these words:
Without maintaining that our forces have never deviated from these rules of engagement, it's clear that our intent has been to fight a "civilized" war. From a humanitarian standpoint, this objective is commendable. However, fighting with one hand tied behind our back (to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam era) has undoubtedly resulted in greater American casualties and made it more difficult to prevail against an enemy that obeys no rules. The limitations, by enhancing the ability of the insurgents and terrorists to carry on the fight, have probably resulted in more, not fewer, civilian casualties. If our rules of engagement were formulated, in part, to present a better face to the "international community," they have failed. Nobody has commended us for our good behavior.
The rules of engagement we've followed in Iraq raise an issue than couldn't be more fundamental. If our twenty-first century conflicts are going to pit us (or, I might add, Israel) against extremist groups whose tactics know no bounds and we allow our conduct to be constrained by the dictates of international law, as defined by such multilateral institutions as the UN, we are condemning ourselves to fighting protracted conflicts that erode American willpower, as has happened with Iraq. If we give precedence to conforming to international norms over winning, it won't escape the notice of militants, who will use every opportunity to weaken us.
The neo-multilateral foreign policy I foresee, because it will exclude unilateral American military interventions, means that interventions against terrorists and militants will rarely, if ever, take place. And when and if they do, the "international community" will employ rules of engagement that are advantageous to the instigators of violence.
Because the Iraq war has been so terribly mismanaged, the "Pax Americana"—a phrase that implies the ability and willingness of the United States to act unilaterally—may indeed be over. If it is, the only possible replacement is a "Pax United Nations." Those who favor this change may live to regret it.
I think the likely outcome of defeat in Iraq is not a chastened U.S. that cheerfully sends its protection money to the U.N. every month and sends its troops the fool's errand of the week with the Boys in Blue Helmets, rather I think the outcome is going to be Pissed Off country that is going to have little patience for international adventures. Any such involvement is going to bring the recriminations over Who Lost the Middle East to the surface, thus grinding activity to a halt while the tribes of the chattering class sling poop at each other. We could also see "To Hell with Them" hawks ascendant, but I think for at least a few years we are going to be occupied licking our wounds and assigning blame.