In a provocative new article, a strategic thinker has asserted that the war in Iraq has been lost and American political leaders should start looking beyond that tragedy to the future.
"The truth is," said Andrew Bacevich, "next to nothing can be done to salvage Iraq. It is no longer within the capacity of the United States to determine the outcome of events there. Iraqis will decide their own fate."
The professor of international relations at Boston University and retired Army officer contended that President Bush will depart in 20 months leaving the US "bereft of a coherent strategy."
Therefore, Bacevich wrote in The Los Angeles Times last week, the pertinent question that the president's would-be successors should address is: "What should fill that void?"
Here's a suggested response from this correspondent, who is not perched in the camp of any would-be successor.
A fresh U.S. strategy would be modeled on a document known as NSC-68, or National Security Council Report 68, drawn up during President Harry S. Truman's administration. It defined U.S. national interests, set diplomatic and military strategies, and generally guided American policy on security from the Korean War of 1950-53 through the Cold War to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.
NSC-68 was the blueprint for containing the Soviet Union. A new doctrine would be aimed at countering threats from terror, militant Islam, a rising China if it becomes belligerent, a resurgent Russia that seems to be backsliding into dictatorship, and whatever else comes over the horizon.
Next, the Weinberger Doctrine, forged by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and his military assistant, then Major General Colin Powell, during the Reagan administration, should be revived to govern the use of military force. It was strongly influenced by the experience of Vietnam.
That doctrine called for committing forces only to defend a vital national interest, clearly defining political and military objectives, and making sure the American public would support a military venture. "The commitment of U.S. forces," the doctrine said, "should be a last resort."
General Powell, later chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then secretary of state in President Bush's first administration, is reported to have urged the president to adhere to those guidelines when planning to invade Iraq, but was clearly unsuccessful.
Continuing the suggested response, the U.S. would pull most of its land forces, which are stretched thin, back to the U.S. and rely on maritime power to maintain the sea-lanes of communication between the U.S. and its key allies.
That web of U.S. alliances, however, would be reconstructed. Two nations that are supremely important to the U.S., Canada and Mexico, have been neglected by the Bush administration. The U.S. must nurture friendly, reliable allies on its long, undefended northern and southern borders.
Across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Japan, Australia, and Britain are vital to U.S. security. They are island nations off the Eurasian landmass with which the U.S. shares values, including a belief in human rights, democracy, and free enterprise.
Moreover, those nations live in rough neighborhoods and have majorities who see an alliance with the U.S. as being in their best interests. Japan has testy relations with China, North Korea, and increasingly with South Korea. Australians keep a wary eye on Southeast Asia, or what they call the "Near North." The British don't have hostile neighbors but many lack enthusiasm for the European Union.
The U.S. has special relations with two more democracies that are something of islands: Israel in a Muslim Sea and India cut off from the rest of Asia by mountains, desert and jungle. Taiwan is a real island, off the coast of China. America's ties with Israel and Taiwan are longstanding, those with India newly cultivated.
U.S. security contacts with South Korea are troubled, as Koreans are undecided about continuing an alliance with the U.S. Much the same is true in the Philippines, once an American colony. Vitriolic anti-Americanism rages across Western Europe. Americans cannot count on Koreans, Filipinos, or Europeans as allies today.
In this scheme, the U.S. would withdraw from the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, where American forces are deployed as far from the continental U.S. as can be and remain in the northern hemisphere.
Not only do those deployments put a strain on the armed forces, they are enormously costly for the taxpayers. As the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago: "To maintain an army at a distance causes the people to be impoverished."