Great Power, Great Responsibility, Great Frustration

The U.S. has great power, but the outcomes of projecting that power aren’t always so great, says Steve Saideman.

By: /
9 January, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

With great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker long ago.  This doctrine became a great burden for Spider-Man, yet also helped him become the superhero we all love. But one problem that plagued Spidey also plagues the U.S. – just because one is responsible for using one’s power well, does not mean that one is responsible for everything that happens. 

Why is this relevant now? Multiple events are causing us to look backwards and wonder why things have not gone so well.  Violence in Iraq is increasing, with al-Qaida apparently gaining control in Fallujah.  Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is promoting his new book (far more effectively than I am promoting mine but I am not telling tales about my former bosses), which has people looking back at the decisions made about Afghanistan.  As I have written before, failure is an orphan, as everyone who might be responsible seeks to point the finger elsewhere.

Did Obama lose Iraq?  Is he going to lose Afghanistan?  Arguing about who “lost” Fallujah is, of course, silly since it is still there on the map.  We know where it is.  It was never in the U.S.’s pocket.  It was and is always in Iraq, which means that when the US left Iraq (which was the responsible thing to do, given what the Iraqis would not allow and what the American people would no longer support), it would not be able to lose it.  There is only so much the U.S. can do.  While there have been plenty of mistakes made, these assertions that Fallujah, Iraq, or Afghanistan were somehow America’s to lose ignores a basic reality: there are real limits to power.

When we look back on the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, we forget that they were not meant to cure either country of their violence.  They were meant to create some breathing space so that institutions could be built and politicians could arrive at some deals.

In Iraq, the surge helped to buttress and facilitate the Sunni Awakening where the Sunnis realized that their extremists were more dangerous than the Americans.  This awakening could have worked to build a more stable Iraq if Iraq’s leaders had been willing to play along.  Which they were not.

In Afghanistan, the surge was aimed at creating more space for the Afghan government to build some competence and gain some support from the Afghans.  Karzai did not prove to be all that helpful, but much progress was made building an Afghan National Army.  The real question now is the transition to Karzai’s successor (again, see this piece).

This is not to say that all of the blame should rest on the shoulders of Iraqi and Afghan politicians.  But it does mean that when we try to figure out what happened, we must realize that the folks on the ground have agency and will do what they think is in their best interests.  And that is often not in harmony with the interests of outsiders or even the interests of their own people.  Elites in these places face the challenge that all politicians face – to do what is best in the short term or to do what is best in the long term – and it is far harder to finesse these tradeoffs when mistakes are so incredibly costly. 

I do not want to diminish the responsibility of the U.S. in the variety of Mideast messes due to past actions and inactions.  Invading Iraq has created a cascade of stuff that cannot be undone.  However, holding the U.S. responsible for everything means making everyone else far less responsible, and it exaggerates the ability of the U.S. to change things in the present.

With great power comes great responsibility, but not great control over anything.  It’s frustrating but unavoidable.  Spider-Man could not save everyone (spoiler!), and outsiders cannot create stability in another country, even if they try really hard, without lots of help and lots of luck.

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