The book arrived yesterday, and it begins with a brief overview US foreign policy (especially military policy) in the years following the fall of the Berlin wall. He offers this account with the suggestion that “the debacle of the early years in Iraq has reinforced the realist dictum, disparaged by idealists in the 1990s, that the legacies of geography, history, and culture really do set limits on what can be accomplished in any given place.
I offer this as a kind of background and review of the foreign policy discussions that we’ve seen over the last 20 years.
The appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 quickly became the reigning analogy of the 1990s.
In fact, the fear of another Munich was not altogether new. It had been an underlying element in the decision to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s aggression in 1991. If we didn’t stop Saddam in Kuwait, he would have next invaded Saudi Arabia, thereby controlling the world’s oil supply and taking human rights in the region to an unutterable level of darkness….
Indeed, an invasion of Iraq began to emerge as a cause in the 1990s, when the U.S. military was seen as invincible against the forces of history and geography, if only it would be unleashed in time, and to its full extent, which meant boots o the ground. It was idealists who loudly and passionately urged military force in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, even as realists like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, increasingly pilloried as heartless, urged restraint….
I, too, supported the Iraq War, in print and as part of a group that urged the Bush administration to invade. I had been impressed by the power of the American military in the Balkans, and given that Saddam had murdered directly or indirectly more people than had Milosevic [in Kosovo], and was a strategic menace believed to possess weapons of mass destruction, it seemed to me at the time that intervention was warranted. I was also a journalist who had gotten too close to my story: reporting from Iraq in the 1980s, observing how much more oppressive Saddam’s Iraq was than Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, I became intent on Saddam’s removal. It would later be alleged that a concern for Israel and a championing of its territorial aggrandizement had motivated many of those in support of the war. But my experience in dealing with the neoconservatives and some liberals, too, during this time period was that Bosnia and Kosovo mattered more than Israel did in their thinking. The Balkan interventions, because they paid strategic dividends, appeared to justify the idealistic approach to foreign policy. The 1995 intervention in Bosnia changed the debate from “Should NATO Exist?” to “Should NATO Expand?” The 1999 war in Kosovo, as much as 9/11, allowed for the eventual expansion of NATO to the Black Sea.
For quite a few idealists, Iraq was a continuation of the passions of the 1990s. It represented, however subconsciously, either the defeat of geography or the utter disregard of it, dazzled as so many were with the power of the American military. The 1990s was a time when West African countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, despite their violence, and despite being institutionally far less developed than Iraq, were considered credible candidates for democracy. But it was the power of the military, and in particular that of the Air Force, which was the hidden hand that allowed universalist ideas to matter so much more than terrain and the historical experience of people living on it.
Munich, too, was at work in approaching the dilemma of Saddam Hussein after 9/11. Though the United States had just suffered an attack on its soil comparable to Pearl Harbor, the country’s experience with ground war had been, for a quarter-century, minimal, or at least not unpleasant. Moreover, Saddam was not just another dictator, but a tyrant right out of Mesopotamian antiquity, comparable in many eyes to Hitler or Stalin, who harbored, so it was believed, weapons of mass destruction. In light of 9/11—in light of  Munich—history would never forgive us if we did not take action.
When Munich lead to overreach, the upshot was that other analogy, thought earlier to have been vanquished: Vietnam. Thus began the next intellectual cycle of the Post Cold War.
* * *
In this next cycle, which roughly corresponded with the first decade of the twenty-first century and the difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terms “realist” and “pragmatist” became marks of respect, signifying those who were skeptical from the start of America’s adventure in Mesopotamia, while “neoconservative” became a mark of derision. Whereas in the 1990s, ethnic and sectarian differences in far-off corners of the world were seen as obstacles that good men should strive to overcome—or risk being branded as “fatalists” or determinists”—in the following decade such hatreds were seen as factors that might have warned us away from military action; or should have. If one had to pick a moment when it became undeniable that the Vietnam analogy had superseded the one of Munich, it was February 22, 2006, when the Shiite Al-Askariya Mosque at Samarra was blown up by Sunni al Qaeda extremists, unleashing a fury of inter-communal atrocities in Iraq, which the American military was unable to stop. Suddenly, our land forces were seen to be powerless amid the forces of primordial hatreds and chaos. The myth of the omnipotent new United States military, born in Panama and the First Gulf War, battered a bit in Somalia, then repaired and burnished in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, was for a time shattered, along with the idealism that went with it.
While Munich is about universalism, about taking care of the world and the lives of distant others, Vietnam is domestic in spirit. It is about taking care of one’s own, following the 58,000 dead from that war. Vietnam counsels that tragedy is avoided by thinking tragically. It decries incessant fervor, for it suggests how wrong things can go. Indeed, it was an idealistic sense of mission that had embroiled the United States in that conflict in Southeast Asia in the first place. The nation had been at peace, at the apex of its post-World War II prosperity, even as the Vietnamese communists—as ruthless and determined a group of people as the twentieth century produced—had murdered more than ten thousand of their own citizens before the arrival of the first regular American troops. What war could be more just? Geography, distance, our own horrendous experience in the jungles of the Philippines in another irregular war six decades previously at the turn of the twentieth century were the last things in people’s minds when we entered Vietnam.
Vietnam is an analogy that thrives following national trauma. For realism is not exciting. It is respected only after the seeming lack of it has made a situation demonstrably worse. Indeed, just look at Iraq, with almost five thousand American dead (and with over thirty thousand seriously wounded) and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, at a cost of over a trillion dollars. Even were Iraq to evolve into a semi-stable democracy and an implicit ally of the United States, the cost has been so excessive that, as others have noted, it is candidly difficult to see the ethical value in the achievement. Iraq undermined a key element in the mind-set of some: that the projection of American power always had a moral result. But others understood that the untamed use of power by any state, even a freedom-loving democratic one like America, was not necessarily virtuous.
Concomitant with a new respect for realism came renewed interest in the seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who extols the moral benefits of fear and sees violent anarchy as the chief threat to society. For Hobbes, fear of violent death is the cornerstone of enlightened self-interest. By establishing a state, men replace the fear of violent death—an all-encompassing, mutual fear—with the fear that only those who break the need face. Such concepts are difficult to grasp for the urban middle class, who have long since lost any contact with man’s natural condition. But the horrific violence of a disintegrating Iraq, which, unlike Rwanda and Bosnia in some respects, was not the result of a singularly organized death machine, but the very breakdown of order, allowed many of us to imagine man’s original state. Hobbes thus became the philosopher of this second cycle of the Post Cold War, just as [the humanist philosopher Isaiah] Berlin had been of the first.
And so this is where the Post Cold War has brought us: to the recognition that the very totalitarianism that we fought against in the decades following World War II might, in quite a few circumstances, be preferable to a situation where nobody is in charge. There are things worse than communism, it turned out, and in Iraq we brought them about ourselves. I say this as someone who supported regime change.
From The Revenge of Geography, by Robert D. Kaplan, (New York: Random House, pgs 14-20).