The American foreign policy debate usually is about what the country should do, rather than what it can do. What it can do is usually assumed to be anything Washington wants to do, since we are the most powerful nation the world has even seen.

This has created a situation in which the United States government and the political and bureaucratic classes have undertaken military project after military project that the government can’t do. This is not usually commented upon but has been true since the Korean and Vietnam wars. The country’s greatest victory, winning the Cold War, was in fact a gift from the Soviet Union, which lost it by collapsing.

It would be a waste of time and energy to go over once again the mighty efforts that have been put into the creation of a so-called New Middle East, which does not exist, and shows little evidence of ever existing on the terms in which the Bush administration conceived it.

Yet even now, the American “Long War” effort, under a new president, is being extended on a still more ambitious scale in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Iraq, where as many as a million lives have been destroyed, gives sign of falling again into the internecine conflict which, alas, may be its natural condition. The same thing seems possible in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while America relentlessly toils on to construct out of them a New South Asia.

The columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently diagnosed the South Asian problem — in part correctly — as one of governments that don’t work.

Their leaders promise to do what Americans tell them they should do, and they agree. They “promise to do all sorts of good things, and pull all sorts of levers, but at the end of the day the levers come off the wall because the governments in these countries have only limited powers.”

True enough. But then Friedman — quite seriously, so far as I can make out — favorably considers “a greater exercise of U.S. and allied powers … used to actually rebuild these states from the inside into modern nations. We would literally have to build the institutions — the pulleys and wheels — so that when the leaders of these states pulled a lever something actually happened.”

Others in American government believe this can be done, which is why military services and civil administrative training in the American government has for the past year been directed to instruct officials how to build democratic states in such places as Afghanistan and Pakistan — “from the inside,” I suppose. (Condoleezza Rice announced this new policy in Foreign Policy magazine last summer.)

This training in futility — to accomplish something impossible for foreigners — resembles nothing so much as the Defense Department’s commitment to producing ever-improved Cold War weapons systems that do not, and undoubtedly never will, have foreign counterparts or challengers, while being irrelevant or unusable against the enemies the country does have. One reason the super fighter F-22 has never been used in Iraq is that there never was anything for it to do there, and the other reason was that it could easily have been shot down when operating at the necessary low altitude, its thin skin being vulnerable to rifle fire.

This organized futility is well known and much criticized. The fundamental problem is the illusion of omnipotence: America is and will continue to be omnipotent because the rest of the world expects this; it is America’s Manifest Destiny.

There is an important book, “The Power Problem,” just coming out in the United States (Cornell University Press), which puts forth the case that American military power naturally invites excessive or irrelevant use, and that the habits of mind created by military supremacy have caused the United States to be less safe than otherwise, less free, more vulnerable, and less able to do the things that fundamental national security demands.

Its author, Christopher A. Preble, is a former officer in the U.S. Navy and is head of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He argues, as many others do, that the United States has a level of military power that it doesn’t need, has limited utility against stateless enemies and insurgents, and causes confusion between military strength and national power, the latter being the ability to actually produce a desired effect. It is a good and lucid book and deserves a wide audience.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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