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December 18, 2006

The Iraq War's Worst Casualty
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

It’s a truism today that America’s position as the world’s superpower is shakier than it used to be. The nation’s military is overstretched and unable to take on new commitment. And Washington has made little progress on urgent foreign policy objectives, including stabilizing Iraq, curbing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, expanding global trade, and ending anti-American extremism in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The Iraq war has directly caused much of this damage. Financially, it has been a huge drain: The Congressional Budget Office reported in mid-2006 that costs topped $432 billion. Militarily, it has been punishing: The Pentagon admits that the conflict has badly stretched the Armed Forces, with 70 percent of troops scheduled to return to Iraq next year set to serve their third tours. In human terms, the price has been high: nearly 3,000 American troops have died to date.

The war’s dearest casualty, however, has been to America’s international standing, specifically its legitimacy abroad. The Iraq intervention has eroded the esteem, respect, and trust that the United States once commanded on every continent, hampering a host of current policy objectives and putting ambitious and important new goals out of reach. Rehabilitating America’s legitimacy, therefore, will be essential to ensuring that the Iraq war does not exact a permanent toll on American global influence.

International legitimacy is a measure of the acceptability and justifiability of a state’s actions in the eyes of other states and their citizens. Legitimacy, a kind of moral capital, reflects a collective judgment that the assertion of power, through a policy or an action, is valid even if it is unpopular. After all, leadership requires taking the occasional unpopular stand; but whereas popularity is inherently ephemeral, contingent on personalities and temporary alignments of interest, legitimacy is more enduring. It provides a foundation for respect and understanding that can transcend short-term, conflicting goals.

Practically, when America’s purposes are well-founded, openly articulated, and broadly consistent with its professed values, the use of power toward those ends is generally judged legitimate. But when the United States misleads others about its motives, acts on inadequate or selective evidence, flouts its own principles, or unilaterally exempts itself from broadly agreed standards of conduct, its legitimacy suffers.

For a discussion of how US legitimacy was lost . . . and the steps needed to recover it, read my piece in this month's issue of Democracy, A Journal of Ideas (the logon process is swift and free!)  Eager for your comments here at Democracy Arsenal. 


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True, true.

There was a time when anti-Americanism was a fringe position, everywhere. Now, the most effective attack ad possible is, "My opponent is a staunch ally of the Bush administration."
In France. In Germany. In the U.K. Associate with the United States, and stare your own political death in face.

And, no matter what skewballs like Glenn Beck will tell you, it didn't used to be that way

Are you sure the "dearest casualty" hasn't been, y'know, the tens of thousands of dead and wounded soldiers? I like American legitimacy as much as the next foreign policy nerd, but c'mon . . . Yes that result is very bad, no it's not the worst thing of the war. Let's just get our language right on this stuff.

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A Journal of Ideas

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