It's important to expand a bit on the topic of power and context. Power--hard or soft--depends hugely on the context. The hardest of hard power, military force, doesn't always work, and isn't even always appropriate. Having a large, well-trained, well-equipped military like that of the Soviet Union gave that country the power to defeat Nazi Germany. That was no small feat, and the USSR could easily have lost the war.
The Germans might have seen their defeat coming, had they not been influenced by the clumsy Soviet campaign against Finland. Although the Soviets won a marginal victory against the Finns in the Winter War of 1940-1941, it was such a messy, protracted affair that Hitler concluded, If the Soviets has this much trouble against the tiny Finnish army, what hope to they have against the Wehrmacht?
Hitler's calculation was solely based on military power, measured as if it were an absolute quantity. He was wrong. (There were a lot of reasons why the Winter War and the Great Patriotic War, fought by the same Soviet army, were very different struggles, not just larger and smaller versions of the same conflict.) Equally wrong too, were the Soviet leaders who concluded that their intervention in Afghanistan decades later would be an easy victory, pitting Soviet helicopters, tanks, and artillery against guerrillas with small arms.
Power, therefore, is merely a tool. Whether it's the right tool for the job at hand, and whether you use the tool correctly, are completely separate questions. Again, that makes me a bit more sympathetic to the concept of leverage as a way of explaining how nations effectively condut their foreign policies, since you have to qualify power to the point of making the concept almost meaningless.
There's a similar pair of competing ideas in the software industry. A software development company sells components, such as accounting software, e-mail systems, word processing tools. The customer, however, is looking for solutions: to solve a particular business problem, what's the right set of components to buy? The company whose problem is, I need to find ways to reduce corporate risk, isn't really looking for an e-mail system per se. Instead, what it wants is some way to prevent employees from sending company confidential information to people outside the firm. Not understanding the difference between components and solutions is one of the chief problems in the software industry today.
Power is like component technology. A battleship or a gold reserve is a component of national power. The use of leverage is like use of software to solve business problems. The critical question is, Will this battleship or this new e-mail server actually fix the problem? Not, Do I need something new and shiny?
Recently, Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviewed Richard Perle and David Frum, two neoconservative pillars of the Bush Administration, about their new book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. Perle and Frum summed up their approach in the following way:
- The United States shouldn't be afraid to use its military power. In fact, it regularly has to, to demonstrate that it can and will fight wars.
- Therefore, invading Iraq could be justified on the grounds that, by showing both US determination and capability, other enemies of the United States would fall into line with our demands.
- If this demonstration effect--their term was, "getting the message"--didn't work with, say, Syria, it was then important for the United States to attack Syria, in turn. War isn't the first resort exactly, but it's necessary in these cases to ensure everyone "gets the message."
In Perle and Frum's view, hard power almost sounds like the only power that matters. The fear it instills also sounds like the only form of leverage the United States can have with Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and other nations.
It's not a thesis that I agree with, but it's a thesis. It's a testable proposition, too, and the Bush Administration has already identified Iraq as the test case.
Let's take them at their word. Don't assume anything about whether the war in Iraq must be a victory or a defeat. Just ask yourself, If this is the theory behind the Bush foreign policy, is it working? For example, did we frighten Libya into opening its weapons factories to inspection and agree to pay reparations for tbe Lockerbee bombing? Or was diplomacy, using a variety of types of leverage, already moving Libya in this direction for the last several years?
Assume nothing. Go back, look at the record, and see if the Iraq war is primarily responsible for Qadaffi's dramatic confession and contrition. If you think the answer is yes, it's also worth looking at a cost/benefit analysis for this approach, two costly invasions (Iraq and Afghanistan) for the sake of a massive "demonstration," versus smaller-scale, direct attacks pinpointing the countries whom we want to influence (like Libya).
I'll say this much about my own opinion on the subject: I hope that Perle is as smart as he sounds. Perle is an articulate, clever, well-educated person, who chooses his words carefully. The name of the venture capital firm in which he is a managing partner (along with Henry Kissinger) is Trireme Partners LC, a nod to classical history. (A trireme is an ancient Greek warship with three banks of oars, hence the name.)
In any dramatic time like today, people grab at historical analogies. The one I'd mention to Richard Perle, if I had the chance, is the Peloponnesian Wars, in which triremes were one of the key weapons. The Peloponnesian Wars were a great tragedy for many reasons, including the ugly spectacle of democratic Athens turning into a bully, savaging both its enemies and allies alike. The Peloponnesian Wars ended badly for Athens, in part because its heavy-handed approach to its national security drove many city-states into the Spartan camp. The climax of the Wars was the misguided adventure in Sicily, when Alcibiades, an outrageously popular but ultimately reckless leader, led Athens and its allies to squander its troops, ships, and wealth. Even if the Sicilian expedition had been a success, it would have contributed little to the central conflict with Sparta. Sicily was a sideshow that cost Athens the overall war. Simultaneously, the larger war unleashed an ugly side of Athens that its citizens would have denied, either denying that they were as harsh as their critics claimed, or justifying their harsh actions as the harsh necessities of war.
Athens wasn't fated to lose the Peloponnesian Wars. Like most Greek tragedies, it contributed enormously to its own downfall. And that's my historical analogy of the day.