Approaching Imperial Overstretch
July 21 2003
The news from Iraq is not good. Each day brings new attacks on U.S. troops.
As many Americans have now died since Saddam's statue fell from its Baghdad
pedestal as perished in the war.
Gen. John Abizaid, who replaced Tommy Franks, has contradicted Secretary of
Defense Rumsfeld to declare that Iraqis are now engaged in a "classical
guerrilla-type campaign against us."
Franks thought the U.S. Army would be in Iraq two to four years at least. Gen.
Barry McCaffrey predicts five to 10 years to pacify and democratize the country.
Rumsfeld says the cost of occupying and rebuilding Iraq is now $4 billion a
Yet, it is hard to recall a 20th-century guerrilla war that did not last longer
or cost more than projected. And lest we forget, most of these wars were lost.
The French lost in Indochina and Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, the Israelis
Western nations prevailed when they aligned themselves with nationalists and
were able to deny guerrillas a privileged sanctuary in a neighboring country.
Thus, the Brits prevailed in Malaya, and Americans aided the Greeks in defeating
communist rebels and Filipinos in defeating the Huks.
In Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan, Reagan turned the tables on Moscow by
aligning the United States with nationalists fighting to dump over odious
Marxist client regimes of the Soviet Empire.
But the omens are not good in Iraq. The morale of U.S. troops, who were told
"the road home lies through Baghdad," is sinking, as is support for the
president, as Americans realize the fighting and dying have only just begun.
The initiative has passed to the enemy. He chooses the time and place of attack,
he has the element of surprise. And the presence of a U.S. army of 150,000
occupying an Arab country is a lure to every Muslim who hates us to slip over
the border and kill Americans without having to face the firepower of U.S.
fleets and planes.
Another problem the president faces is that we are running out of army. With
U.S. active duty forces down to half what Ronald Reagan left us in 1989, we have
troop deployments and treaty commitments President Reagan never had to honor.
Packets of U.S. forces are now not only in Germany, South Korea and Japan, but
Colombia, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, Bosnia, Kosovo, the former Soviet
republics of Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf. U.S. troops are being
requested for Liberia. And with a guerrilla war now being waged in Iraq, two
other axis-of-evil nations, Iran and North Korea, are driving for nuclear
weapons. Confrontation, even conflict, with either cannot be ruled out of
America is now approaching the imperial overstretch toward which we have been
lunging and stumbling since the Cold War. For 10 years, the "jodpurs-and-pith-helmets"
jingo crowd at the little magazines has been beating the drum to drive us toward
Now, we are there, the United States is facing what Walter Lippmann called
A foreign policy is bankrupt when a nation's strategic assets – its forces and
alliances – are insufficient to cover its liabilities, what it has committed to
defend. U.S. foreign-policy bankruptcy was reached before Pearl Harbor, when
Franklin Roosevelt was issuing ultimata to Japan without the naval power to
defend the Philippines and any other island possessions in the far Pacific. So,
our notes were called, we had insufficient funds to cover them, and the war
Foreign policy bankruptcy is a condition that invites a run on the bank by a
nation's enemies and adversaries. So today, we see axis-of-evil nations defying
the Bush Doctrine and driving toward nuclear weapons, Iraqis rising up to expel
us, Muslim fanatics slipping into Iraq to attack our soldiers, and alienated
allies sitting back and relishing watching the "American hyper-power" thrash
As our reserves are being called up, not only is our active duty U.S. military
stretched thin. Our budget deficit is $455 billion and rising, our trade deficit
is $500 billion and rising, our dollar has fallen 25 percent against the euro.
In ruthless candor, President Bush does not have the surplus of resources –
military, strategic, financial, political – to hold the empire. As some of us
predicted a decade ago, the compulsive interventionism of the Bushites must lead
to imperial overstretch.
Something has to give. It is going to be the empire. We are at or close to high
tide now. From here on, it begins to recede. Either President Bush starts
discarding imperial responsibilities we cannot carry, and bringing the troops
home, or his successor will.
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