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In the wake of the Cold War, a quartet of ideas emerged that seemed to define the future of international politics. The first of these ideas was Francis Fukuyama’s argument that history had “ended” with the victory of liberal democratic capitalism. The second was that globalization had created a new Americanized international order. The third was that the United States had become “the indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright phrased it. Events have now discredited all of these notions. The failure of the fourth idea has been especially dramatic and deserves more attention than it has received. Pentagon strategists called it “full spectrum dominance,” which is the idea that the United States can and should maintain comprehensive global military supremacy. This notion of American hegemony was spelled out in a remarkable 1990s Pentagon document, “Joint Vision 2010.” It offered an aspirational template for making the U.S. military “preeminent in any form of conflict.” Central to that expectation was the conviction that technology was transforming warfare, with the United States uniquely positioned to capitalize on that development.

The upshot: Future adversaries would find themselves at such extreme disadvantage as to make resistance futile. Outside of the Pentagon and the community of national security specialists, few paid much attention to the extraordinary claims contained in Joint Vision 2010. Yet an assumption that the United States would soon enjoy—perhaps already enjoyed—unchallengeable military supremacy was already insinuating itself into foreign policy thinking.

Confidence in the invincibility of American military power fostered grandiose expectations. Writing in Time magazine, for example, pundit Charles Krauthammer confidently asserted that the United States “is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations, and create new realities.” The conviction that the United States possessed unprecedented military power lent notions like “the end of history” and American indispensability whatever plausibility they possessed.

But these days the United States no longer looks like an almighty superpower. The Bush administration is hardly in a position to “create new realities.” Instead, it finds itself reacting to realities that other nations such as Iran and North Korea are creating. Despite its vaunted military abilities, the United States finds itself today stuck in an ugly unwinnable war. U.S. forces are overstretched and may be approaching exhaustion.

What caused American dreams of permanent military ascendancy to dissolve so quickly? Here are three answers to that question.

First, the Pentagon visionaries who conjured up this dream of military dominance misunderstood the fundamental nature of warfare. In the heady aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, they mistakenly came to see war as the management of what could be done to a specific target. War thus became something that “we” did to “them,” rather than an interactive process. Hence, American national security experts implicitly discounted the actual history of warfare, choosing to believe that advances in precision weapons had rendered obsolete all prior military experience. They lost sight of the fact that war is a continuation of politics. Hence, American policy-makers failed to anticipate the complications likely to ensue from overturning the existing order in Afghanistan and in Iraq, or to grasp the intensely political nature of those conflicts, in which technology plays only a limited role.

A second explanation for why this almighty superpower quickly reached the limits of its might: In fashioning its strategy for waging a global war on terror, the Bush administration failed to appreciate the extent to which U.S. claims of military supremacy rested on the tacit consent of other nations. That is, to the extent that the United States really did occupy the summit as the sole superpower following the Soviet Union’s collapse, it did so because that arrangement suited other major powers such as Europe, Japan, Russia and even China.

Operation Desert Storm showed how this arrangement worked. In 1990- 1991, the United States organized a broad coalition to liberate Kuwait in large part because Russia and China gave their assent, authorization from the United Nations Security Council endowing the enterprise with international legitimacy. Germany and Japan, along with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, then absorbed the war’s costs, assuming a burden that would otherwise have fallen on American taxpayers.

These nations acted not out of altruism but out of self-interest: They viewed the prospect of Saddam Hussein dominating the Persian Gulf as unacceptable. In deputizing Washington to lead the effort to oust Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, they permitted the United States to shoulder the lion’s share of any military risk. U.S. post–Cold War indispensability thus derived not solely from its omnipotence, but from the expectation of others that the nation would take into account their interests as well as its own.

After the events of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration arrogated to itself some radical new prerogatives. Presidential talk of “eliminating evil” along with the promulgation of a doctrine of preventive war exclusively reserved for the United States unsettled key members of the international community. They expressed their disapproval by setting out to obstruct Washington’s plans and to punish it for disregarding their concerns.

Obstruction and punishment came chiefly in the form of withholding support for America’s invasion of Iraq. Unlike the Persian Gulf War of 1990- 1991, this time there was no authorizing resolution by the UN Security Council.

Although the administration cobbled together a “coalition of the willing,” the result yielded little meaningful military support and little moral legitimacy. Apart from the United Kingdom, most allies refused anything but symbolic assistance, and none volunteered to defray the costs of invasion and occupation.

When the books closed on Operation Desert Storm, the United States had broken even financially. In contrast, Operation Iraqi Freedom will end up costing Americans upwards of $2 trillion.

Finally, there is the matter of civil-military relations, the third explanation for why U.S. military power is nowhere close to achieving the Pentagon’s hoped-for dominance. Since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon has paid little attention to the relationship between the Army and society. Military leaders have failed to recognize that Americans generally no longer see national defense as the people’s business. Rather than a responsibility inherent in citizenship, protecting the nation has become something that others are hired to do.

The events of 9/11 left this view intact. The understanding at the end of the Vietnam War defined military service as a matter of individual choice, the government no longer having the authority to require that service. During the initial march on Baghdad, none of this mattered. In the ensuing campaign to secure Iraq, it has come to matter a great deal.

Infatuated with technology, the Defense establishment has lost sight of the fact that the real sinews of military power lie among the people. Fancying that their new way of war would guarantee quick and decisive victory, they saw no need to prepare for protracted and inconclusive war. Historically, armies had hedged against that prospect by creating ways to divert resources from civilian purposes to military ones as circumstances might require.

After 9/11 the United States embarked on a major war without any effort to mobilize the nation. Indeed, the president insisted that Americans return to their usual pursuits, famously urging families to visit Disney World. The Bush administration assumed that existing forces would suffice for the tasks ahead, and it wanted maximum freedom of action to wage the global war on terror as it wished. Casting the American people as spectators rather than participants achieved this end.

Alas, assumptions regarding the adequacy of existing U.S. forces have proven to be wrong. The problem is not one of quality but of quantity. The administration has too much war and not enough soldiers. The 1.4 million soldiers on active duty approximate the upper limit of able-bodied Americans willing to serve. That number will not be enough to guarantee U.S. preeminence “in any form of combat.”

The illusions propagated by concepts such as full spectrum dominance have exacted a high price of the nation and its soldiers. Dispelling those illusions may restore a sense of realism about what force can and cannot accomplish. For that we should be thankful.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.