Help Wanted

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In some theologies, when a sparrow falls in the forest, God is responsible because he could have prevented it. In some theologies, when people die in Liberia, America is responsible because it could have prevented it.

It is time the world recognized that we are not God. America today is the closest the world has ever seen to God. But, alas, the gap remains great. We are not quite omnipotent, and we cannot be ubiquitous.


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During the late 1980s, historian Paul Kennedy popularized the notion of "imperial overstretch." It was a variant on Walter Lippmann's notion of "insolvency" in foreign policy, when a country's resources simply cannot underpin and sustain its ambitions. Some, like Kennedy, saw this happening to the U.S. in the 1980s. As a result, they predicted an "American decline."

They were wrong. Shortly after the Afghan war, Kennedy himself marveled at America's astonishing ability to project overwhelming global power "on the cheap," just 3% of GDP.

Indeed, economically the U.S. is not overstretched. But psychologically we are coming up against our limits. The American people are simply not prepared to undertake worldwide nation building. We are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to risk blood and treasure in places with strategic significance, like Afghanistan and Iraq. But we are in no mood to do so in places without strategic significance — and where the job could better be done by others.

During the Clinton years, we tried foreign policy as social work in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. But that was during the dreamtime between the end of the cold war and 9/11. Today with the war on terrorism engaging us on every continent, with daily attacks on Americans in Baghdad and with international terrorists gathering in Iraq to make their stand — and test our resolve — we must husband our resources and sharpen our focus. Of course, we are prepared to give relief aid for humanitarian missions in places like Liberia. But is that a job for the U.S. military?

With the exception of Britain, the U.S. has the only military that can actually fight and win wars. Sweden, Canada, Nigeria are good at peacekeeping. Sending American troops ashore in West Africa, even in small numbers, is not a very efficient division of labor. But if the world insists that we stretch ourselves beyond prudent limits and be the international benefactor everywhere, we should insist that the world help relieve our burdens elsewhere, most notably in Iraq.

First, the world must recognize the provisional Iraqi Governing Council. The U.N. Security Council received delegates from this fledgling Iraqi government and then grudgingly welcomed its formation, but the council pointedly refused to endorse its legitimacy. The U.S. is genuinely trying to shift power to the Iraqis and establish Iraq's first truly democratic institutions. And yet the Security Council that accepted without question the legitimacy of the Saddam thugocracy gives lukewarm, hands-off treatment to the most representative Iraqi delegation ever to address that august body.

Second, the Security Council must pass a new resolution that explicitly authorizes other countries to send peacekeepers. Russia and India and others say they would contribute only under such a resolution. Foreign peacekeepers could relieve U.S. forces of such static and technologically simple duties as guarding fixed facilities. There is no reason why American soldiers should be standing guard duty at a children's hospital (where three G.I.s were killed in a grenade attack in July). That can be done by others and would free up the U.S. military to do what it does best: hunt down the remnants of the Baathist regime and confront their foreign terrorist allies.

Which brings us to the third point, the hardball. If the world will not help us in Iraq, we should ostentatiously announce a global reconsideration of all U.S. military commitments in humanitarian ventures. Why are thousands of U.S. troops sitting in the Balkans, doing a job the French and Germans and others who won't lift a finger for us in Iraq can very well do themselves?

Our soldiers in Iraq are tired. They need relief. That relief can come from newly trained Iraqi forces, who would be helped by international recognition of the provisional government working with us. Relief can come from other countries' troops, hence a U.N. resolution explicitly granting such authorization. And relief can come from rotating to Iraq U.S. soldiers on social-work duty elsewhere — hence the threat to withdraw from those commitments if the world will not help us otherwise.

If the world wants us to play God, especially in godforsaken places, it had better help. We cannot tend to every sparrow in the forest. Not even God does.