In the final days and hours preceding the current Persian Gulf war, reports extolling the dazzling information-age capabilities that American troops would take into battle against Saddam Hussein became a media staple.  Newspapers, newsweeklies, and television vied with one another in enthusing about the latest in satellite-guided bombs, unmanned aircraft, and state-of-the-art digital gadgetry.  The media coverage of the war’s first hours and the spectacular air campaign that ensued reinforced these impressions.

The schematic versions of “today’s battlefield” used to juice up these stories—elaborate graphics for print, animation on television, and, finally, video clips of the real thing—offered Americans a bowdlerized version of the “Revolution in Military Affairs.”  For the last decade and more, this RMA has been the subject of intense interest among defense experts.  According to its advocates, the RMA is transforming the way that the Pentagon fights.  In sharp contrast to the uncertainty, error, waste, and carnage that characterized combat in the industrial age, U.S. forces today wage war with economy and precision.  For the United States, military power, once a blunt instrument, has become a scalpel.  At least so the average citizen perusing the latest issue of Time or taking his cues from FOX News might reasonably conclude.  

Whether intended or not, one effect of such reporting has been to reinforce popular expectations that war against Iraq would be brief, antiseptic, and decisive, producing clear-cut results at an affordable cost.  To what degree did such expectations account for popular acquiescence in the plans to topple Saddam Hussein and, by extension, to implement a doctrine of preemptive war?  It is difficult to answer that question with certainty.  The effect was not trivial, however.  We are a people of vivid imaginations and short memories.  Among Americans willing to give the Bush administration a free hand, images of precision war are at least as important as their recollections of September 11.

Unfortunately, the expectations stoked by these images are illusory.  The prospects of a tidy war producing a neat, tidy result are slight.  Technology changes the way that soldiers fight, but it does not change the nature of war.  That nature remains stubbornly rooted in politics, which is seldom given to tidy outcomes.  The ongoing war in Iraq is unlikely to prove an exception.

Indeed, the experience of the 1990’s—a decade in which U.S. forces time and again demonstrated their technological edge over all comers—warns against any such expectation.  

For evidence, we need look no further than the previous Gulf War, touted at the time as a turning point in military history.  A victory of seemingly unprecedented proportions guaranteed peace in the region and held out the promise of reducing America’s own burdens as guarantor of the region’s stability.  At least so the elder George Bush promised.

In fact, Operation Desert Storm yielded few of its expected benefits.  Instead, in its aftermath, the United States found herself drawn further into the morass of Middle Eastern politics.  The upshot was not peace and stability but endless sparring with Saddam Hussein, along with the bombing of Khobar Towers, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and, if indirectly, the horrific events of September 11.  

The other major military actions of the 90’s—the air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, each hailed at the time as a dramatic demonstration of high-tech military power used to advance an humanitarian agenda—produced similarly ambiguous results.  To be sure, armed intervention—chiefly in the form of American airpower—halted Balkan “ethnic cleansing.”  Preventing its resumption, however, requires the United States and her allies to maintain a permanent and decidedly low-tech military presence in the region.  The animosities and ambitions that fueled ethnic unrest remain stubbornly in place.

Now, the 43rd president has set out to correct the (still unacknowledged) errors of the 41st, making an end to Saddam Hussein once and for all.  The White House justifies this portentous step as necessary to eliminate the threat of a hostile Iraq armed with weapons of mass destruction.  But the administration’s plans do not end there.  Even before making it to Baghdad, President Bush and his hawkish advisors were looking beyond it.  In their eyes, toppling Saddam Hussein constitutes only the first step in a vastly more ambitious enterprise to be underwritten by American military prowess.  

After removing Saddam from power, U.S. forces will occupy Baghdad and—if we are to believe claims coming from the White House—convert Iraq into a model of democracy.  The United States will work in defeated Iraq the same magic that she worked in defeated Germany and Japan—an expectation that ignores a mountain of cultural, ethnic, and religious obstacles to which America’s high-tech military will prove irrelevant.  

For the Bush administration, however, even success on this front will be the beginning, not the end.  “Fixing” Iraq constitutes only phase one in a plan that aims to “fix” the region as a whole.

Slipping the steel fist of military power back into the velvet glove of American statecraft, President Bush and his lieutenants will turn next to their ambitious vision for reordering the Middle East according to their liking.  Hitherto recalcitrant Arab potentates, having witnessed yet another demonstration of U.S. military supremacy, will (presumably) fall into line.  Islam will be cured of its radical inclinations.  Among the rickety nations of the Arab world, modernity will take hold.  Peace, democracy, and liberal values will prevail—all made possible by America’s unquestioned military preeminence.  For the ideologues of the Bush administration, liberal democracy is like a light bulb.  You just insert into any available socket, and it works.  The U.S. military is the hand that turns the bulb.

This, of course, is the stuff of fantasy rather than statecraft, rooted in an infatuation with military power and a corresponding naiveté about political realities.  It is a vision of almost breathtaking ethnocentrism, based on the belief that there is no problem that cannot be solved if only others will simply become like us.  Certainly, it represents the very inverse of the humility that George W. Bush once promised would govern his thinking about America’s relations to the rest of the world.  Above all, the Bush game plan for the Middle East is a recipe not for peace and stability but for endless meddling and perpetual war—and the inevitable dissipation of the military might in which we take such pride.

In another day, Americans would have rejected such fantasies out of hand.  It was a battle-hardened G.I. in Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead who observed that “Fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.”  Those who today inhabit the precincts of power in Washington have long since lost sight of that commonsensical fact.  Alas, so, too, have many ordinary citizens, captivated by the allure of revolutionary new military capabilities.  

As a great power, the United States requires military strength and will, from time to time, find herself obliged to use force.  But force—no matter how generously festooned with the latest ornaments of information-age technology—is not a panacea.  What remains to be seen is how large a catastrophe must occur before Americans reawaken to that truth.