Quentin Peel: No way to change the world

By Quentin Peel

Published: August 18 2004 20:52

George W. Bush announced this week 'the most comprehensive restructuring of US military forces overseas since the end of the Korean war'.

Those were not his own words. The US commander-in-chief merely announced that he planned to bring home some 70,000 servicemen and women from bases abroad, so that they could have ‚more time for their kids, and to spend with their families at home‚. It was his White House staff who made sure Mr Bush's attempt at a homely presentation to an audience of US veterans did not completely disguise its import.

Of course the decision does not include the frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one can be sure when they will get home. But it does mean that about one in three of all the US military personnel in Germany, Japan and Korea - the three great cold war garrisons - will be recalled over the next 10 years.

The timing of the announcement certainly has a lot to do wi th Mr Bush's re-election campaign. But whichever way you read it, the decision also seems to have been affected by a growing awareness of US imperial overstretch: the world's most magnificent fighting machine can no longer handle all the global security tasks it has set itself.

It is a pity that what is rather a sensible move should be tarnished by a whiff of panic, precipitated by the strains of the ill-judged campaign in Iraq. For that is what has put such a strain on US military resources.

John Kerry, Mr Bush's Democratic challenger, has been swift to denounce the decision as a blow to America's allies and as a sign of weakness at just the wrong moment - especially in South Korea where the troop cuts are taking place at a time when North Korea should be facing the strongest possible pressure to abandon its nuclear weapons. Others say it could be a devastating blow to the Nato alliance, already riven by transatlantic divisions over the war in Iraq.

They are wrong. The US garrisons in Ge rmany, Japan and Korea have all been overtaken by history. Except in Korea, the cold war threats have vanished. South Korea is generally regarded as quite capable of defending itself. And a steady reduction in US forces will have the beneficial effect of forcing all those countries to be more realistic about what they need to spend on their own defence.

As for Nato, the alliance still lacks a clear direction since the Soviet threat evaporated. But keeping US heavy armoured brigades in Germany is not going to solve the problem.

It is not the US force reductions that are misguided, but the muddled thinking in the wider context of this comprehensive review of American ‚global force posture‚. Unchallenged as the sole superpower, technologically capable of demolishing any threat within days if not weeks, this US administration is nonetheless attempting to do too much on its own, and in the wrong way. It is attempting to run a global empire without admitting it, and without making the essential co mpromises needed to win enough allies to its cause. Indeed, instead of winning friends, all too often it alienates them with heavy-handed intervention, whether military or diplomatic.

Americans insist that their power is not imperial. Their whole history is one of resisting empires, especially the British one. Yet the new strategy from the Pentagon is to encircle the globe with military bases that can be used to whisk US forces to trouble spots wherever they are. Instead of staying in Germany, they will move south and east, to eastern Europe, central Asia and the Mediterranean, closer to areas of instability. Most bases will be ‚austere‚, run by skeleton staff until they are needed to help move troops to new crises.

Some fear that if the situation in Iraq deteriorates further, we will face an American withdrawal and a new era of isolationism. That is not the greatest threat. The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 demonstrated that US defences are not enough - even the most sophisticated missile defence system cannot stop suicide bombers. The US must engage internationally. The awful dilemma for the sole superpower, however, is when and how to intervene without making matters worse. For in the very act of intervention - whether militarily, as in Iraq, or politically, as in backing opponents of Hugo Ch√°vez in Venezuela - the US tends to stoke opposition because of its overwhelming power. It may not wish to behave like an imperial power but it is condemned to be seen as one and can seldom resisting behaving like one.

It was so much easier for empires in the past, before the days of instant communication. The Romans and the British did not have to worry too much about popular opinion. They ran their territories by co-opting local leaders and conscripting local armies. They did not try to do it all themselves. If a heavier hand were needed, the British could usually rely on their famous gunboat diplomacy to quell incipient insurrection from a safe distance offshore.

But this US adm inistration is altogether more ideological. It believes in exporting democracy. Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at Washington's Cato Institute, calls it ‚democratic imperialism‚. In his recent essay ‚The Unrealism of American Empire‚, he points out that the proponents of a democratic empire too often ignore the still more powerful forces of nationalism.

That is what has gone wrong in Iraq: Iraqis want their country back more than they want to import some idealised form of liberal democracy. Which leaves the Americans trying to impose it through the barrel of a gun, so far without success, and the empire feeling sorely overstretched.