How superpowers become impotent

RICHARD K. BETTS is director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

BEING A superpower is handy. No government in the world dares stand up to the United States on a regular battlefield. Having more than a quarter of the world’s GDP and a half-trillion-dollar defense budget gets us that much -- and it’s a lot.

Israel is a superpower in its neighborhood too. And yet these two militarily muscular powers find themselves strategically impotent in the face of age-old guerrilla tactics married to high-tech capabilities.

The U.S. and Israel are perfectly equipped to knock out Iraqis, the Taliban or Hezbollah -- as long as they act like good enemies and come at us in tanks, planes and ships.

But as anyone watching the news knows, these enemies are not stupid, so they do not cooperate by fighting in the way we are suited to beat. Instead, in Afghanistan, the resurgent Taliban pins down NATO forces in hit-and-run attacks. In Iraq, opponents stymie U.S. control with roadside bombs, sniping and raids. From Lebanon, Hezbollah fires missiles into Israel’s heartland. And on the Internet, Al Qaeda boasts that it will use radiological weapons.


Along with suicide terrorism and a willingness to incur massive civilian casualties on their own side, these guerrilla tactics threaten to transform nationalist insurgents and Islamist terrorists from manageable irritants, who cause suffering but never severely damage a great power, into formidable threats to the basic security of the U.S. and its allies

These frightening developments are a wake-up call for U.S. policy. We need to focus not just on polishing our military strategy but on which fights are winnable at an acceptable cost. We need to choose our battles more carefully. The ones we choose should be fought with overwhelming force, as Colin Powell wisely counseled, but also with overwhelming help to conquered populations who must be won over if peace is to take hold.

We have no reason to be surprised by our messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but our military successes since the 1991 Persian Gulf War made many forget what previous generations learned painfully about unconventional warfare: Guerrillas and terrorists plot in secret, rarely wear uniforms and hide among the civilian population. Despite illusions about precision-guided bombs, regular military forces cannot rout them without killing lots of the civilians.

To win with our conventional military, we would have to fight like beasts, slaughtering noncombatants. Americans rightly shrink from this in Iraq, but we are stuck, with no victory in sight. Israelis, feeling their backs to the wall, used military power with less restraint in Lebanon, killing hundreds of civilians to maximize the odds of getting Hezbollah soldiers and supplies. But this approach is self-defeating, spreading bitterness among victims that mobilizes more support for Hezbollah.


Short of barbarism, there are only two ways to reduce guerrilla ranks faster than new recruits refill them. One is to rely on special forces such as Green Berets, but the few we have are spread thin in hot spots around the world. The other is to saturate a country with regular troops standing on every street corner. But our Army is too small to do this in more than one country at a time.

Foreign occupiers face high hurdles in overcoming local nationalist opposition. The best chance is to try “shock and awe” in occupation as well as in war. First: a dense presence of occupation forces. This would have meant half a million U.S. soldiers in Iraq to show the locals from the start that we were really in charge. We tried to get by with 150,000, which only showed how little we could control. Second: a quick and massive infusion of economic aid, construction, medical services and training. If civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq had jobs, air conditioning, genuine police protection and medical care soon after the invasion, the insurgencies might not have gained traction.

As it was, the U.S. did these things only in dribs and drabs. We had no serious plan to co-opt conquered populations. This may sound like bribery, but it is better than the daily application of firepower to tamp down chaos. Yes, lots of money was pumped into Iraqi and Afghan reconstruction, but it was a small proportion of the more than $200 billion spent on the wars so far. Bribery might not work, but without it, locals have fewer reasons to prefer foreign occupiers to homegrown resisters.

So both great powers are mired in inconclusive attempts to pacify an exploding Middle East. With the hopes of peace in tatters, Israelis face narrowing options. Americans, however, blessed by geography, have more choice. The Bush line that aggressive action in Iraq was the way to counter terrorism got it backward; it has embittered more Muslims and energized more terrorists than it has eliminated. We need to focus on combating Al Qaeda, not multiplying new enemies. Where we do have to invade -- as in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 -- we should do so with overwhelming force and overwhelming help, to tempt the locals to buy into our brand of peace so we can leave quickly.