Power is one of many tools used to engineer a political outcome. We usually think of these tools in terms of power, but a more useful concept is leverage.
Power implies coercion, the use of military force or economic power to persuade, compel, overwhelm, or crush. Undoubtedly, the United States today has all the instruments of "hard power" that define it as a superpower: an enormous economic capacity; an advantageous place on the world map, bounded by oceans to the east and west, and friendly nations to the north and south; the biggest and most capable ground, air, and naval forces in the world; scientific and technological sophistication.
There are other tools for a nation to get what it wants, such as moral authority or a good reputation. Thinkers like Joseph Nye like to call these tools "soft power", used primarily to attract or entice, rather than compel.
I'm not a big fan of the hard power/soft power distinction. I find the term leverage, which encompasses both types of power, as a more useful idea. Nations have levers that they can pull to persuade other countries, but leverage is something highly dependent on the situation and how expertly you use these levers. Where power implies an engineering problem--apply this much economic power here, and that much military power there--leverage implies a more psychological or political challenge.
Take, for example, the "tail that wags the dog" problem. The United States had enormous power relative to South Vietnam. Yet, South Vietnam had enormous leverage over the United States, since a string of US presidents from Eisenhower through Nixon declared that South Vietnam was the domino that would not fall to communism. That commitment eliminated most of the leverage the United States had over any regime in Saigon, no matter how inept or corrupt it was. US ambassadors like Lodge and Bunker could fume at their South Vietnamese allies, but at the end of the day, leaders like Diem, Minh, Ky, and Thieu knew the US would continue supporting them. Without the credible threat of leaving the
South Vietnamese to their fate, the United States often felt like a "pitiful, helpless giant" (Nixon's phrase).
Power only describes potential. Leverage describes what you can actually do.
The Iraq War provides a staggering number of examples where our power is less relevant than our leverage--and we don't have enough leverage to control the situation. The original war plan--"shock and awe" that would topple the Baathist regime with our impressive hard power, followed by a peaceful transition--didn't work out, needless to say. The postwar reality confounded the United States because it found itself having little leverage over people whom we had expected simply to go along with whatever we asked.
The most recent and embarassing example is Ahmed Chalabi. Since the 1990s, Chalabi cultivated a close relationship with the neoconservatives with whom he shared an interest in toppling Saddam Hussein. With Hussein gone, the United States now faces two problems:
- We weren't the only country with whom Chalabi was building ties and making promises. In fact, Iran seems to have figured highly in his "relationship-building" efforts.
- Chalabi is now ignoring his earlier promises to the United States, such as making an immediate detente or rapproachement with Israel.
Is this outcome surprising? Hardly, in terms of the leverage we don't have with Chalabi. We declared him the best hope for the next leader of Iraq; funneled him money, intelligence, even the files the Baathist secret police, the Mukhabarat, kept on people whom Chalabi can now blackmail; we helped install his family in key positions, including a pivotal role in negotiating post-war contracts; and even approved his nephew, Salem Chalabi, as the head of the tribunal that's slated to try Hussein and other Baathist leaders.
So what now does Chalabi have to lose by thumbing his nose at the United States? Practically nothing. Our "hard power" is worthless in this situation. In fact, it's worse than worthless, since it helps make us look like the proverbial "pitiful, helpless giant" next to the Iraqi version of Ngo Dinh Diem.