Noah Millman responds to me by insisting he does not favor military intervention in what’s left of Iraq, but that my own formulation of “letting go of global hegemony” is too glib and too blithe. As for the US having an indirect responsibility to the people of Iraq, having invaded their country eleven years ago, here’s the money quote:
My definition of “indirect responsibility” is simply to say that once you have positioned yourself as a global hegemon, declared yourself “indispensable” and arrogated to yourself rights that are not granted to any other state, of course you are indirectly responsible for just about everything that happens, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the situation. The madness lies not in my description of reality but in the reality itself. We should seek to change that reality. Perhaps I am overly pessimistic, but I assume that this will be a difficult and lengthy labor, with many setbacks along the way. I am hard-pressed to name another hegemonic power that acceded peacefully to a more multi-polar reality.
And on that point, we can surely agree. There are, indeed, very few empires that “let go” without hanging on indefinitely and then succumbing to a sudden collapse. One wonders what would have happened to the British Empire without the Second World War. But that’s only the case with respect to meddling in other countries’ internal affairs, trying to shape the form of government in other countries, or feeling obliged to prevent evil whenever it emerges. It seems to me perfectly possible for the US, by virtue of its naval and air power to secure the critical shipping lanes for international trade and travel, to bolster democratic allies with trade, intelligence, and mutual security arrangements, while eschewing the kind of global micro-management that was once justified by the Cold War or rationalized by unchallenged unipolar power from 1989 – 2001. Will that mean some regional actors filling the vacuum?
Of course. Hence Russia’s bullying of its near abroad and the Chinese attitude in the Pacific.
But these regional shifts do not, it seems to me, directly injure American national interests – what on earth did meddling in Libya achieve? – and can, in fact, lead to somewhat better outcomes, in as much as they might facilitate a more stable balance of power between countries with a much better grasp of their own neighborhoods than we have. Will this mean unpleasant outcomes for some? Alas, yes. But a foreign policy based on preventing unpleasant outcomes for millions of foreigners is not a foreign policy at all. It is a pretentious posture, underwritten by solipsism and hubris.
So, yes, there will be blood. But given our massive – historically unprecedented – global over-reach, some of this is inevitable as we retrench to saner, more sustainable limits. Is this difficult and nerve-wracking process without risk? Of course not. Is the alternative begging for the sudden collapse so many over-reaching, self-bankrupting empires have experienced? You bet it is.
(Photo: three neocon musketeers in 2003, by Alex Wong/Getty.)