CHICAGO -- Just three months ago, America was Master of the Universe, the unassailable superpower feared by all. Today, it resembles a substitute teacher on the last day before Christmas break -- harried, confused and facing more troublemakers than it can hope to control.
The violence and chaos in Iraq have done more than short-circuit the administration's plan to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. They've also called into question the president's vision of our international role. We thought we had the means and the will to force hostile regimes the world over to change or else be changed, at the point of an M-16. But the job now looks bigger than we bargained for.
Invading Iraq has been the obsession of U.S. policy ever since the war in Afghanistan. President Bush made it clear he would do whatever was necessary to eliminate the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein. But not only did the administration deceive the public about the danger, it deceived itself about what it would take to accomplish the mission.
Sneering at the Powell doctrine, which calls for overwhelming force, it decided to do as much as possible with as little as possible.
Voltaire once remarked that the Holy Roman Empire was not holy, Roman or an empire. Likewise, the undertaking in Iraq was supposed to be quick, easy and cheap, only to fail on all three counts.
Instead of sharply reducing our presence once the war was over, we're planning to keep some 150,000 troops there indefinitely. The cost of military operations alone in Iraq has doubled, and we're now burning through $3.9 billion a month -- not counting the expense of reconstructing the place. American forces are taking casualties nearly every day. And apparently, we'll be running the country for a long time.
"Whether that means two years or four years, I don't know," said Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks last week. When Republicans chant "Four more years," I assumed they were talking about something else.
We expected to go in, smash Mr. Hussein's regime, and then let the Iraqi people live happily ever after. But they're not happy, and neither are we. The mess left behind, we discover now, is all ours.
That's not a problem just for our people in Iraq. It's a problem for the administration's entire foreign and military policy, which is based on the fervent conviction that we can remake the world in our image at low cost and little risk.
The theory worked, it seemed, in Afghanistan, where we toppled the Taliban and decimated al-Qaida with just a handful of troops. The Iraq invasion force was far smaller than the one we assembled for the first Persian Gulf war -- when all we had to do was push the Iraqis out of Kuwait, not march to Baghdad. By going in light, we would prove it was easy for us to strike anywhere, sending a chill up the spine of every rogue dictator.
But with the Army bogged down in the sands of Fallujah dodging bullets, we've shown we may lack sufficient manpower even for our existing obligations. Meanwhile, the dictators have gotten more troublesome. Far from being cowed into submission, those in Pyongyang and Tehran have been stimulated to find ways to avoid the fate of Mr. Hussein, which means acquiring a nuclear deterrent. Worse yet, we haven't found a way to stop them.
At the same time, we're now being called on to send troops to other places, such as Liberia. But despite his eagerness to show concern for Africa, the president has found we're hitting the limits of our military capacity.
Yet no one is talking about expanding the armed forces to fit their growing responsibilities. Doing that would cost too much money, a sacrifice the administration is loath to ask of the American people.
The result is that our uniformed personnel are being put under endless, excessive demands. Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, upon retiring as Army chief of staff last month, warned against operating chronically on the cheap. "Beware," he said, "of the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army."
We need to decide if we want to commit ourselves to the huge responsibility of policing the world, and if so, start turning over a bigger share of our paychecks to cover the costs. Otherwise, we'll find ourselves badly overstretched, putting American lives at constant risk for no clear purpose, with no easy way out.
Come to think of it, we're already there.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.