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Iraq: Geopolitical Folly in a Geoeconomic Age

David Callahan

It's finally over.

Today marks the formal end of the nine-year U.S. military intervention in Iraq, although of course we are far from fully disentangled there with two military bases remaining on Iraq soil and 4,000 troops.

It's hard to say how historians will see Iraq in years to come. But my guess is that the war will be remembered mainly as a damaging distraction from the truly important business of bolstering U.S. economic power amid the rise of new competitors like China, India, and unified Europe.

It's an old story, of course. Through history, great powers have gotten enmeshed in defending far-flung security interests that divert resources away from sustaining the core sources of their power, which is wealth creation. The result, as Paul Kennedy famously argued in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, tends to be a "weakening of national power over the long term."

Kennedy, writing in 1987, observed that the United States had far too many global security obligations even as its share of global GDP had declined and its trade and budget deficits had soared. Kennedy's points were largely forgotten during the boom of the 1990s, when it seemed the United States could have plenty of both bombs and butter.

Yet, as Joseph Stiglitz writes persuasively in this month's Vanity Fair, America's current economic crisis was well under way in the 1990s and before, as the U.S.'s long-time source of wealth and middle class prosperity -- manufacturing -- began to disappear. That crisis grew urgent in the first years of the 21st century amid a jobless recovery after the recession of 2001 and stagnant wages for most households even as a new service economy boomed. Those years also saw the rapid rise of China, as well as India, Brazil, and other nations.

In other words, the exact moment that the U.S. undertook a "war of choice in Iraq" -- on top of its intervention in Afghanistan and its new homeland security obligations -- was the same moment when this nation needed to be focused laser-like on refurbishing the economic foundations of its power amid fast changing conditions and finding ways to reinvent the middle class prosperity that has been one of America's signature accomplishments. We badly needed the several trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq war for other things -- like strengthening our education system, investing in infrastructure, and subsidizing new technological breakthroughs.

And it's not just the lost money. We also needed to spend the past decade focused on Asia, whose rising power and influence will determine our future -- not bogged down in the deserts and mountains of one of the most backward and economically undeveloped parts of the world.

In the conclusion of his book, Paul Kennedy noted that the United States remained a hugely wealthy country and had much else going for it. The "only serious threat to the real interests of the United States," Kennedy wrote, "can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order."

Prophetic words.