Back to website

July 11 2004

Channel 4¶sStartAt=1

The limits of US power

Published: 10 Oct 2005
By: Lindsey Hilsum

The limits of American power are there for all to see. Ask yourself why Iran is so confident today

As the sickle moon rose to mark the start of Ramadan, the Americans launched their biggest offensive in Iraq this year. Insurgents control Haditha and other towns near the border with Syria.
The aim of the simultaneous operations River Gate and Iron Fist is to kill as many as possible, and then turn the area over to forces loyal to the government in Baghdad.
If that sounds familiar, it's because you've heard it before.
Rockets, missiles and bombs
A year ago I was in Fallujah, witnessing a similar assault. As darkness fell I watched a unit of US marines take up positions on a roof above the rubble.
The crescent moon shone white in the sky. Twenty-one Iraqi fighters lay dead, after the building from which they had been sniping at the marines was flattened by rockets, missiles, bombs and anything else the Americans could launch at it. The suburb was in ruins.
The insurgents had not stood a chance against the Americans' superior firepower.
Repeat business
So how come the marines are repeating the exercise now, a few miles up the road?
Sir Rupert Smith, the retired general who commanded the British Armoured Division in the 1991 Gulf war, has the answer in his book, The Utility of Force: the art of war in the modern world.
His thesis is that "industrial war", the use of overwhelming force, which characterised 20th-century warfare, is obsolete.
Quoting Foucault, he says: "Power is not a possession; it is a relationship."
America, he says, is not very powerful in Iraq. There can be no victory because in conflicts like this one overwhelming force can win only the battle, not the war.
Extraordinary faith
It was Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN and frustrated over lack of intervention in Bosnia, who famously asked the then chief of staff, Colin Powell: "What's the point in having this superb military you are always talking about if we can't use it?"
Modern western politicians put extraordinary faith in the military to solve complex political problems, against the advice of soldiers such as Smith.
The threat of force is a powerful tool, but by using it in Iraq the Americans have exposed their weakness: the limits to their power are there for all to see. The most advanced armies in the world cannot beat a few thousand rebels armed only with Kalashnikovs and second-hand rocket-propelled grenades.
Young men armed with rifles
It is a lesson guerrillas learned long ago, from Rhodesia to Vietnam, but now television has spread the message across the world.
Just before the Fallujah assault last year, in the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta in Nigeria, a group of young men armed with rifles and fishing spears found they could manipulate the price of oil.
Mujahid Dokubo Asari, the leader of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, threatened to attack oil installations across Nigeria's oil-producing south.
The following day oil prices shot above $50 a barrel for the first time. His was the most militant group demanding that the people of the delta get a bigger share of the profits from the oil pumped from their land by Shell, Chevron, Agip and other multinationals.
Asymmetric warfare
Other issues then pushed the oil price even higher, but that was the moment the Nigerian federal government had to confront the issue.
President Obasanjo stopped the aerial bombardment of the delta and invited Asari for talks.
It's called "asymmetric warfare": the powerless turn to violence and suddenly the vulnerability of those with sophisticated weapons, regarded as the most powerful in the world, is plain to see.
The louder politicians shout that they won't "talk to terrorists", the clearer it becomes that they will have to in the end. They always do.
Playing the long game
It may not be possible for the Americans to talk to the Sunni insurgents in Iraq today - although lines of communication to intermediaries have been established - but in the end different Iraqi factions will negotiate.
The war preceding that may be long and bloody, but there is little that foreign forces can do to stop it. All Iraqi factions, armed and unarmed, Shia, Sunni and Kurd, are playing a long game, and that is something that modern, western, election-aware politicians cannot abide.
They are desperate for the quick, military fix.
Young men armed with rifles
Ask yourself why Iran is so confident today.
The west showed its hand in Iraq, and the trump card turned out to be a joker not an ace. Iran can continue its nuclear programme, safe in the knowledge that the Americans could not win a war there any more than they can in Iraq.
So we are back to the dark arts of diplomacy and persuasion, in which any British official will tell you the Persians are well practised.
Soft power
Students on international relations courses learn about "hard power" - the use of force - and "soft power", the extension of influence by culture, example and sharing technology.
The US has more "soft power" than any other country: its films, music and consumer habits are coveted and copied the world over. But the use of "hard power" has created such resentment that even American "soft power" is diminished.
General Smith says that 21st-century wars will be fought "among the people" - seizing their loyalty is a more important strategic objective than taking a town or even the capital.
The marines fighting in Haditha know that, but the politicians back in Washington have closed their ears.
Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News.
This article first appeared in the New Statesman.