THE BLOG
10/20/2014 01:53 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2014

ISIS, Ukraine, the South China Sea and the End of the Era of American Power

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A colleague called me during the run-up to the Iraq war in March 2003. It is going to be unlike anything the world has ever seen. Shock and Awe. The war will be over before it starts. An inside player in the Bush administration, he was in a position to know what was in store.

Shock and Awe is a the military doctrine that "focuses on the psychological destruction of the enemy's will to fight rather than the physical destruction of its military forces." To the Bush administration, Shock and Awe was the name for the onslaught of missiles and bombing that was to initiate the U.S. invasion and would intimidate Saddam, quickly bringing his regime into submission.

Little did we know that the opening days of the second Iraq war marked the end of the era of America as the world's dominant military power. It is not that America's military power declined, but rather the salience of that power. Since the invention of the atomic bomb, the United States has had to choose in any given military or proto-military engagement which weapons were appropriate to use and which were deemed inappropriate or disproportionate to a given conflict. While some envisioned the invention of the atomic bomb as a weapon that would make war itself unimaginable, the invention of increasingly powerful weapons has only complicated the nature of warfare for the dominant power.

In the first days of the Iraq war, the massive missile strikes were delayed in favor of a decapitation strike that failed due to faulty intelligence. Shock and awe never unfolded as the tour de force of the administration's imagination and the war that was to spark an Arab spring, with Iraqis seizing the opportunity to embrace their Jeffersonian future, was an abject failure. It plodded on for a decade until the American public had had enough. Looking back, it is apparent that the opening days of the Iraq war marked a seminal moment in American military power and foreign policy reality, but one that we have yet to discuss, to debate and to learn from as a nation.

This became vividly apparent when ISIS beheaded its first victim, an act to which many had the same immediate and visceral reaction: We should nuke them. A decade earlier, I watched the utterly barbaric video of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading Nicholas Berg, and now, as then, a video of a beheading garners a response unlike any other form of intentional brutality.

Nuke them. Using nuclear weapons would of course be inconceivable. But the visceral response to the ISIS acts encapsulated the larger problem that we now face: We are unwilling to use the military capabilities that we have, and our adversaries understand this. And worse, in not using the capability at our command, we are rendered impotent, unable to respond with means at our command to those who show no such restraint.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have been challenged by what it means to be the dominant superpower in the world. We have deployed military assets around the world, with a specific focus on key regions. We have surrounded the Russian landmass with military assets and a coordinated defense alliance through NATO. We have built a network of bases along China's coastline from the Sea of Japan to the South China Sea. We have a network of military assets surrounding Iran. We have a network of bases in place to defend our interests in the Middle East. And we have aircraft carrier battle groups deployable across the world.

The doctrine of shock and awe--a metaphor for our ability to subdue conflicts through intimidation before they turn into full fledged wars that has been essential to our notion of military power in the world--died in Iraq. Perhaps the limits to what we were willing to do in war were first manifest in Vietnam. And perhaps it was what Ronald Reagan realized when he considered his choices in the aftermath of the bombing of the military barracks in Beirut in 1983 and chose to pull out. But in the wake of Iraq, Americans now know instinctively that, whether for moral, financial or practical reasons, we are not willing to use the military capability that we have so carefully built for so many years. We are no longer interested in pursuing military action as a solution to each new conflict that the world turns to us to solve, but having built our credibility around our military power, we have neither the capability nor the respect for alternative paths to conflict resolution. While for domestic political reasons we have been unable to have a serious national discussion about this new underlying reality, our increasing disinclination to use the military capability that constitutes so much of our identity in the world has become inherently destabilizing.

Vladimir Putin understands this. He understands that he has great latitude to pursue Russia's strategic interests in Ukraine before he will risk seeing any American military response. Xi Jingping understands this as well. He understands that China has great latitude to impose its will and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea before America will consider any serious military response.

And Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's protege, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, understands that if the world is going to wait for a committed American response to the ISIS threat in the Middle East, the world is going to have to wait a while. Baghdadi, like Putin and Xi, understands that shock and awe is only a meaningful doctrine if it is backed up by the commitment to use military force--real force, even disproportionate force, the force that makes one a superpower--on the ground.

If war is politics by other means, and we have effectively taken the use of our full military capacity off the table, it is time that we have a real discussion about the implications of this for our foreign policy and how we engage in the world. So far, Congress has been unwilling to seriously engage the question of where we go from here, which the Senate made clear when it refused to hold a debate on launching military strikes against ISIS.

The cornerstone of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has been the deployment and implicit threat of disproportionate military capacity. But now the veil has been lifted and the world knows that the days of shock and awe are behind us. In our political discourse we continue to posture as though nothing has changed. But we are only fooling ourselves, our adversaries have already figured it out.