Tuesday, April 15, 2003

A US empire? I doubt the US can afford it …

Okay, it's beginning to look as if the war may be over and a number of US Hawks in the Bush administration (notably not Colin Powell, the only one it seems left with a clue) have been saying there are lessons for the rest of the world in the defeat of Iraq.

This is a little scary. As the NY Times has put it:

“Some hawks inside the administration are convinced that Iraq will serve as a cautionary example of what can happen to other states that refuse to abandon their programs to build weapons of mass destruction, an argument that John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, has made several times recently.

The administration's more pragmatic wing fears that the war's lesson will be just the opposite: that the best way to avoid American military action is to build a fearsome arsenal quickly and make the cost of conflict too high for Washington.”

It does appear, though, as if “regime change” in Syria is now on some Bush advisors’ agenda.

But is this at all realistic? As Paul Kelly has put it:

“Just examine the "axis of evil" realities. The US can invade Iraq and succeed for three reasons – because Iraq is now a depleted and weak state; because its regime is discredited worldwide as evil; and because there are no regional or global powers to dissuade the US by making its actions prohibitive. Each condition is critical for pre-emption.”

Weak, isolated and without allies willing to back it – Iraq could be invaded on terms acceptable to coalition forces: a swift (not cripplingly expensive) war, little anticipated resistance from conventional forces and low casualties.

Fears of a new American empire are greatly exaggerated. For a start, it could simply not afford to be on a permanent war footing. The bill on Iraq looks like coming in at about 1% of GDP – there’s only so many times you can sell wars that expensive to the public while simultaneously cutting taxes. And, for all the reasons Kelly puts forward, this war is at the low end of the monetary cost of stoushes with the axis of evil.

But what about the more insidious forms of Empire? Is the US the new Rome? The Guardian sees military garrisons in over 40 nations, a network of client states, an invisible empire of trade and cultural dominance.

I’m not convinced. While the US may dwarf in might, military spending and the size of its internal economy the next four major powers combined, Rome never faced a series of well-organised states with different agendas and access to equal technology.

We live in a world where power is a lot more decentralised than we appreciate. And North Korea for one appears to appreciate that nuclear capability is an ace in the hole that will cause “the new Rome” to falter. Quite simply and bluntly, the “opportunity cost” of mounting a full-scale invasion of any other supposed rogue state will be too high. We may see limited operations against specific targets, or states that are laughably poorly armed in comparison to the US, but balance of power diplomacy is alive and well and the US has now aligned Old Europe and the Arab states against it.

A new age of first strikes? I rather doubt it.

A postscript

Then again, perhaps I’m just not paranoid enough about who’s really running US foreign policy. At least, however, hard-left-wing opinion pieces like this make the point that the Bush war cabinet do not necessarily represent mainstream US sentiment.

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