Lessons learned from Bush’s war on terrorism

Looking at the United States from the outside in, these are the primary lessons the world should take away from America’s "global war on terrorism" under the Bush-Cheney administration.

Potential state-based adversaries should take little comfort from the U.S. government’s record in Afghanistan and Iraq, primarily because its military has proven itself capable of learning how to better shape postwar outcomes — its Achilles’ heel since World War II. Worse, for them, that learning curve has kept its casualty levels low enough to call into question the long-held assumption that America has the patience only for short wars.

Now, the key limit on America’s use of force is operational capacity, meaning it’s becoming a truly full-service cop, albeit one burdened by an impossibly large beat. As such, what America has re-learned in Iraq concerning the utility of sub-contracting security responsibility to incentive-driven locals — e.g., the Sunni awakening — will inevitably be applied on an international scale.

None of these realities bodes well for non-state enemies of globalization’s advance, for they suggest that America — contrary to Europe or Japan — is able to once again tap into its historical experience as a powerful integrator of economic frontiers.

As a result, adversarial non-state actors should recalculate assumptions about America’s entry into perceived quagmires. If the Americans cannot be bled to exhaustion in any one conflict and will simply refuse participating in additional ones once their perceived operational bandwidth is tapped, luring them into "imperial overreach" is unlikely to yield victory within an acceptable timeframe.

While America plays bodyguard to globalization’s advance, its private sector is not the primary agent of integration today. In developing areas that role falls overwhelmingly to rising powers such as India and China, whose militaries are nowhere near advanced to the point where they can defend their nations’ far-flung global economic interests. In both Beijing and New Delhi, those strategic "awakenings" will create new alliance opportunities for the U.S.

Further, identifying your state or movement as some new wing of an "anti-American" coalition presents no strategic advantages, because rising great powers aren’t interested in bankrolling such activity unless clear economic gains accrue, and if they do, then there’s no good reason to incur America’s wrath in the bargain.

If you’re a significant state actor, it’s smarter to do what the Russians did in Georgia: punch hard and fast and get your business done quickly so that it can be presented to Washington as a fait accompli in the manner of a police action. If the Americans are sufficiently tied down elsewhere, your chances to achieve your desired outcome are high, assuming you can tolerate the subsequent economic punishments imposed by those competing great powers angered by your deeds.

If you’re a great power willing to go down this route, it’s smart to imitate America’s approach: define the alleged bad guys in ideologically appropriate terms, observe the implied rules of UN-sanctioned operations, and immediately offer to internationalize the "peaceful resolution" once your objectives have been secured. Above all, present your intervention as a boon to global economic stability. Nothing kills America’s sense of urgency better than an opportunity to avoid unwanted responsibility.

If you’re a small state subject to a great power’s perceived sphere of influence, these are humbling days. Sobered by recent experiences, America’s military leadership now possesses a crystal ball on low-intensity conflict akin to the one it’s long had on the subject of nuclear escalation, meaning there will be no stumblin’ bumblin’ dashes to inadvertent great power war as in 1914.

Finally, whether I’m a state-based or non-state actor, I would take one additional lesson: America remains a society that glorifies violence and has little trouble expressing itself in this manner internationally. America’s relative ease in continuing to attract young recruits into its military — particularly its ground forces — is simply astonishing, as is the continuing irrelevance of its anti-war movement.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a visiting scholar at the University of Tennessee’s Howard Baker Center and author of the new book "Great Powers: America and the World After Bush." Contact him at tom@thomaspmbarnett.com.)