U.S. as Great Power: Iraq and Iran as a Case Study
Besides power, one trait of a Great Power is a willingness to think, plan, and act with the long term in mind. A Great Power that doesn't do this, isn't likely to remain a Great Power very long.
For instance, let's talk about the U.S. in the Cold War. For all the abuses that we used that conflict to excuse (the removal of left-leaning but noncommunist leaders like Allende and Mossadegh; our support of strongmen from Somoza to Marcos to Savimbi, as well as dozens of others), the fundamental strategy of containment was a good policy in service to a good end - confining the reach of the Soviet Union's power. It was a policy we pursued across the decades. It worked, and we ultimately won.
Once upon a time, we also pursued a long-term policy with respect to nuclear proliferation. The point of this is clear: one can kill hundreds or thousands at a time through conventional, biological, or chemical weapons. One can kill hundreds of thousands at once with just one nuclear bomb in just one city. And the more nations that have nukes, the more likely it is that eventually nukes will fall into the hands of a leader that doesn't give a whit about the balance of power or the effects of retaliation on his country. (We'll pretend we're the Bush Administration and stick to rogue states as our threats, ignoring terrorists except for occasional use as a boogeyman.) So there are damned good reasons why we don't want nukes to fall into the hands of an Iran or a North Korea - and why nukes in the hands of Pakistan should make us lose sleep at night.
President Bush and his crew are worried (sort of) by the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and are contemplating air attacks on Iranian facilities, possibly including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, on account of that. But there's only one problem: we're bogged down next door in Iraq, which is a majority-Shi'ite country.
Iran and Iraq are closely connected here in two important ways:
1) Right now: if we attack Iran, as the guy quoted in Sy Hersh's story says, "the southern half of Iraq will light up like a candle." We're fighting a slo-mo losing battle against the Sunni insurgency as it is; if we get the Shi'ites mad at us, it'll be time to have those helicopters ready to evacuate the Green Zone.
We'll lose Iraq, and we'll lose most of our residual support in the Arab Middle East as well. BIG strategic blunder. For what? A temporary setback for Iran and its nuclear program.
We aren't going to force regime change on them, not without troops on the ground - which we don't have. And we won't be able to do this twice; if we do it once, nobody in the region will be letting us base there, or letting us put aircraft carriers in their territorial waters.
2) Three years ago: our invasion of Iraq made explicit Iran's and North Korea's need for nukes. We created an environment where any country that the U.S. regards as hostile will want nukes if they can get 'em.
Up until 2003, we lived in a world where countries like the United States didn't just go around invading other countries out of the blue. Then with Iraq, we went from their not being publicly on our radar as a concern, to being the biggest threat in the world, in fourteen months: the time from Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, and the beginning of the Iraq invasion. And we did so on the basis of a U.N. resolution that only we and Great Britain regarded as any sort of authorization to act. We went in essentially on our own, with no clear threat to quash, with no international consensus that this needed to be done.
What potentially hostile nation could look at our actions in Iraq and conclude that the same thing wasn't going to happen to them? We gave the two other 'Axis' partners, Iran and North Korea, every reason to believe we could come for them next if we damned well felt like it. And especially after Saddam opened his nation to inspectors, which the U.S. chased out of there when they didn't turn up anything worrisome, we left them two safe alternatives: total submission - going well beyond what Saddam provided - or going nuclear.
If you're one of the world's bad actors, which would you choose?
No matter what else was or wasn't true about the justifications for invading Iraq, this alone makes our invasion of Iraq the U.S.' biggest strategic blunder of the nuclear era. We've opened the door to a dog-eat-dog world where nukes are the only proof against invasion, and as a result, all the wrong people feel a much greater need to have them than they ever would have felt otherwise.
By invading Iraq, we've created a far more dangerous world, just in this manner alone.
That's what happens when you lose sight of what your long-term objectives are. Or should be, since I'm not sure Bush & Co. really care about nonproliferation.