ABC The Drum

Twenty years ago, US military power was universally considered awesome in its scope. But a decade since the Iraq invasion, the world is much more aware of its limitations and costs — and it is decidedly less impressed, write Owen Harries and

The invasion of Iraq was a strategic blunder, whose costs are still being counted 10 years to the day after it began.

A murderous tyrant who had defied numerous UN resolutions was toppled within weeks of the "shock and awe" campaign. But it has come at the price of some 200,000 Iraqis and some 5,000 coalition troops, more than a trillion US dollars, a fierce insurgency, sectarian warfare, militia killings, roadside bombings and the influx of Islamist militants, a Shiah authoritarian government in conflict with the Sunni minorities, greater Iranian influence in Baghdad, and some two million Iraqis, including an estimated 90 per cent of the nation's Christian population, who have been driven to exile.

The past decade has certainly led to a tragic outcome for the Iraqi people who long for peace and freedom. But it has also led to seriously tarnished US prestige and credibility across the globe. It was not meant to be like this.

Twenty years ago, the US had won the Cold War. It achieved global hegemonic status not by especially assertive or ambitious action on its own part, but by a combination of the self-induced collapse of its rival and the discipline not to gloat about it.

George HW Bush had no plan in place to exploit its unexpected dominance, nor did his successor, Bill Clinton, adopt one during the rest of the decade.

Certainly, the US armed forces were maintained at a high level despite post-Cold War reductions in force strength and the defence budget. But new commitments, over and above the maintenance of US alliances, were scrutinised mercilessly, and any undertaken were kept limited in time and scope. Sensibly, the US military often seemed more concerned with effective exit strategies than with implementing ambitious, open-ended, foreign policy projects — whether that concerned the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia or places entirely avoided, like Rwanda.

Strikingly, the comparative restraint of the new hegemony allowed its dominance to be accepted with comparatively little complaint. Of all people, it was the French foreign minister of the day, Hubert Védrine — he who also coined the term "hyperpower" — who best reflected the prevailing view:

American globalism ... dominates everything. Not in a harsh, repressive, military form, but in people's heads.

Meanwhile, the United States was experiencing what to all appearances was the longest economic expansion in its peacetime history. Everything that should be up — wages, growth, stock market — was up, while everything that should be down — inflation, jobless, deficits — was down. America was being widely hailed, abroad as well as at home, as the miracle economy.

That was then. Today, things look very different. The dollar is weak. The debt mountain is of Himalayan proportions. Budget and trade deficits are alarming. Infrastructure is aging. The AAA bond credit rating is lost. Economic growth is exceptionally sluggish for a nation that is nearly four years out of a recession.

Twenty years ago, US military power was universally considered awesome in its scope. Today, a decade since the invasion, the world is much more aware of its limitations and costs — and it is decidedly less impressed.

From hindsight, it is clear that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 constituted a major inflection point in the change of circumstances. As America's alleged "holiday from history" came to an abrupt end, outrage over the attacks, taken together with the mental habits of American hegemony and American exceptionalism, had apparently given US leaders a clear, overriding sense of purpose.

A new central organising principle that it had lacked after the twin-pillar strategy of containment and deterrence had been retired with laurels arose so crisp and clear as to be too good to be true — because it was.

A mature and experienced president might have been able to resist, modify or deflect the temptations of the moment. George W Bush not only yielded to them; he gave them authoritative voice. Thus September 11 shifted the balance in favour of those who saw things in sweeping terms — away from prudence and modesty toward an ambitious and assertive use of US power to topple tyrannical regimes and export democracy far and wide.

Of course, there was nothing wrong with the promotion of democracy and its associated values as one goal among many in US foreign policy. It made sense after September 11, 2001, so long as it was pursued with care and modest expectations, when it did not conflict with more demanding goals, and when the conditions for its success were favourable.

There was everything wrong with pretending (or, even worse, genuinely believing) that it should be the overriding purpose of policy, one that had to be achieved in quick time and by the application of US force. As it happened, in Iraq America became its own worst enemy — inefficient, incompetent and over-confident.

Today, as president Obama attempts to define a new role in a more pluralistic world that fits America's changed circumstances and more limited resources, the US is rediscovering the costs and limits of the use of force. Or as the president frequently puts it: "It is time to focus on nation-building here at home." That is perhaps the overriding lesson of the Iraq invasion a decade ago.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum