The end of hyperpower

Something that’s really striking about the Ukraine crisis is the quiescence of the supposed global hyperpower. Powell took a firm line a few days ago, but he’s a lame duck who can’t be presumed to speak for the Administration. As was pointed out at (pro-war Left site) Harry’s Place, Bush’s own statement on the issue was anything but a ringing affirmation of democracy, perhaps because of Yanukovych’s membership of the Coalition of the Willing. In any case, the US has been happy to leave the running of the issue to the EU.

That’s not surprising, perhaps, given that Ukraine is a long way from Washington and right next to the EU, but how about the current situation in Iran? The US has 140 000 troops right next door to a potential nuclear power, and the threat is being dealt with (or perhaps not dealt with) by negotations with the EU.

The obvious point is that the resources of all kinds (military, diplomatic, financial and in terms of moral standing) expended on the Iraq crusade have weakened the US government to the point where it has nothing with which to impose its will on Iran. The US government can’t credibly threaten an invasion because it doesn’t have the troops, it can’t run a long bombing campaign in case the Iranians foment a Shia insurgency in Iraq, it can’t negotiate because it has already painted itself into a corner with the “Axis of Evil” line, it can’t rally the world to its cause because of its belligerent unilateralism in the past, it can’t buy the Iranians off because it’s broke, and it can’t use its intelligence resource to catch out the Iranians in any lies they are telling because US intelligence has been fatally discredited. Bush can still blow up the world, but then, so can Putin.

The era of hyperpower has been short indeed.

56 thoughts on “The end of hyperpower

  1. John, a bit of wishful thinking on your behalf. I would like to see some more detailed information to back up your claim that the US of A couldn’t fight another war at the moment. In fact if you do some research into the Strategic posturing, Order of Battle and Logistics on the US military, you will find that they do have the ability to take on another localised conflict/war. Since the Cold War finished the US planned their forces on the ability to fight two wars, admittedly more focussed on a Mid-East and a North Asian war, but they can do it. As for the logistics, even the consistent bombing campaign in Kosovo hardly made a dent in their stockpiles.

    First your hooking into them for going to war, and now your getting into them because you don’t think they can fight two wars at once, let alone side by side. A bit inconsistent I think.

    By my estimates they have about 5 un-commited aircraft carriers and the rest of the Navy aren’t busy launching Tomohawks at anybody, 1 Marine Expiditionary Unit, the 2nd Armoured Division in South Korea (which is the most powerful land formation of its’ size in the world), at least one Armoured Cavalry Regiment, XVIII Airborne Corps (2 Airborne Divisions) and a spare Amroured/Mechanised Division in both Europe and Continental US of A, plus the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. I can’t give you much on the Airforce side of things but they ain’t overly committed at the moment (ie. no more than when they were enforcing ‘No FLy’ operations in Iraq pre-Gulf War II). And we haven’t started going through potential Allies Order of Battle.

    An dif the hyperpower is dead, who is their equal? Are there now two or more super-powers?

  2. Razor,

    The USA’s “spare” military capacity is very close to zero. For every carrier battle group deployed in foreign waters, another 2-3 are either back home in refit, in transit or in training. The USA’s land forces (which are essential to any potential invasion) are in even greater disarray. The USA is involuntarily extending the tours of duty of reservists serving in Iraq and converting National Guard armour and artillery units to infantry to cover the dearth of grunts on the ground in Iraq. It simply does not have enough spare brigades/divisions to launch an invasion of Iran. The 8th army forces cannot be removed from South Korea (remember the other member of the AoE?), the airborne corps has been shattered by continuous service in Iraq and Afghanistan and the USMC is likewise fully engaged in Iraq.

    Now, the USA could easily train up a few new divisions, buy new carriers etc., but they’re not available RIGHT NOW, which is precisely the problem in terms of strong-arming Iran.

    I happen to disagree with the Prof that the USA has lost its “hyperpower” edge, but extremely poor strategy (i.e. invading Iraq and retaining no strategic reserve) and inadequate force preparation (i.e. the now evaporated “Cold War Dividend” that saw massive cutbacks in military spending) have left the USA vulnerable to new threats.

    On the Ukraine, I don’t believe the USA’s apparent indifference reflects weakness, so much as other priorities. That is, winning the war in Iraq is more important to the Bush administration than ending Russian hegemony in the CIS. Bush needs Putin’s support in the UN, on the oil price and in Central Asia. I suspect it’s just realpolitik at work.

  3. The Yanks don’t need to do anything about Iran’s nuclear threat, because if (when) they get too close, the Israelis will bomb them again, just like last time.

  4. Pr Q’s rumour that the US hyper-power is deas may be exaggerated. The US is being subtle about the use of a little firm-economic and soft-cultural power, rather than hard-military power, to get its way in the Ukraine. It seems to be working. US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev

    the campaign is an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes.

    Officially, the US government spent $41m (£21.7m) organising and funding the year-long operation to get rid of Milosevic from October 1999. In Ukraine, the figure is said to be around $14m.

    US pollsters and professional consultants are hired to organise focus groups and use psephological data to plot strategy. The Democratic party’s National Democratic Institute, the Republican party’s International Republican Institute, the US state department and USAid are the main agencies involved in these grassroots campaigns as well as the Freedom House NGO and billionaire George Soros’s open society institute.

    Freedom House and the Democratic party’s NDI helped fund and organise the “largest civil regional election monitoring effort” in Ukraine, involving more than 1,000 trained observers. They also organised exit polls.

    The US cant do much about internal development of Iran’s nuclear capacity. It has shot itself in the foot in Iraq alright, most likely the Iranians provided the bullets.

  5. Truly John, that was unworthy of you. If the Americans had their fingerprints all over Ukraine’s citizens’ revolution (as many others are alleging, in fact) you’d be blogging about the continued heavy-handedness of the Bush White House. That they’re not up to their necks in oranges leads you to call their attitude “quiescence.” Come off it.

    Same with Iran. A nuclear threat that can’t be dealt with because of Bush’s mistaken foreign policy you say. If (and, more likely, when) the US acts against Tehran you’ll say how awful it all is.

    How any of you characters on the left manage to score a feed when your worldview is one Speedy Gonzales of a moving feast is beyond me.

  6. Fyodor at November 29, 2004 07:35 PM seems a little behind the curve, as usual:

    [The US] simply does not have enough spare brigades/divisions to launch an invasion of Iran.

    If Fyodor wasnt looking for war in all the wrong places he would realise that the disarmament of rogue states was a complement, not substitute, for US military regime change.

  7. C.L.,
    How do you see the Americans dealing with Iran?

    I would have thought that the redeployment of the Black Watch in Iraq prior to Falluja spoke volumes about America’s ability to bring in new troops. As does Fyodor’s stuff about extending reservists deployements etc.
    As would complaints from senior US commanders in Afghanistan that their resources keep getting redirected to Iraq.

    It’s all very well have a number of units around the world, but many of them can’t be moved. The ones in South Korean, for instance, have to stay put. And it’s all very well having a number of units around the world but the politics of their deployment has to be taken into account.
    North Korea and Iran know this – why do you think they’ve been rattling sabres louder than they have in years? They know they can get away with it.

  8. Razor, I think your analysis sums it up. By stripping everything else bare, including the Korean peninsula. Europe and all domestic forces, the US could just scrape together five divisions, which, all going well, would be enough for an invasion of Iran.

    So, look ahead 12 months. How do you propose that these divisions should be relieved? As Fyodor says, there’s nothing left.

    Razor, CL and others have read all sorts of assumptions into this post, but the main point is a simple factual one. Whether or not military intervention in Iran is desirable, or might become so, the option has been foreclosed by the Iraq fiasco.

    Alex, the Iranians learned their lesson from Osirak. The crucial stuff is now in hardened underground sites.

  9. I’m not sure what the answer is Harry. Obviously Israel has what is – by now – a very dust-covered plan for levelling Iran’s facility. My understanding, however, is that this is not necessarily a straight-forward operation, militarily speaking. I’d be interested in hearing others’ opinions on that.

    What seems probable is that Washington will pressure the EU and the UN over the next six months to put sterner condemnations of Iran’s gaming of the system on the table.

    I don’t see the Bush/Rice doctrine on pre-emption as being an absolutist modus operandi. Rather, I think what they look for and build on are internationally official but unfulfilled punitive instruments. If enough of those can be tabled by the UN’s atomic agency and Iran continues to be obstructionist and cute, an ultimatum could then be efficaciously delivered.

    Whether the demolition job is done by Israel or the US, what I really hope is that having tried valiantly to do things pacifically, the EU will acknowledge the necessity of action and give Washington its moral sanction. If that happens, the chances of an Iranian incursion into Iraq would seem less likely.

    Why? Not for fear of French troops or German tanks – not in the first instance – but because one of the great weapons in Tehran’s armoury is the strategically valuable propaganda about an isolated and morally repudiated White House. Without that, Tehran’s own isolation might give the mullahs pause for thought given the agitation for modernisation with Iran itself and the ease with which Saddam Hussein was crushed.

    Time is obviously of the essence.

  10. Should have read:

    “…Tehran’s own isolation might give the mullahs pause for thought given the agitation for modernisation within Iran itself.”

  11. Yeah, I really don’t see a clear path of action either.
    I simply can’t think of anyone who’s going to be too eager to go into Iran – look at how long it took for NATO bombings to get underway in Kosovo; and we’re not talking about merely bombing but a full scale invasion. A threat of military action has to be credible to be a true threat. The Iranian’s perceive America to currently not have a credible threat so they are going wild.

    Personally I think Iran has won. Nothing the EU or UN can do will compel them to hand over their nukes. Even then there is nothing to stop them handing over all but one or two and no-one will ever know. They will take their lead largely from North Korea.

    I mean, the international community (however you want to define it) can’t even get their sh!t together over Dafur; and that has the added moral imperative of stopping genocide, and involves invading a nation with a totally crap army.
    Dafur is child’s play compared with Iran.

  12. Agreed Harry, your last point’s a killer comparison. Put it this way, if nothing’s being said or done about this in, say, two months, well… I’ll be disappointed.

  13. ‘Alex, the Iranians learned their lesson from Osirak. The crucial stuff is now in hardened underground sites.’

    John, I’d like to think that there won’t be a US or Israeli airstrike on Iran. But William Lind, a rightwing Iraq dove and well-informed defence analyst, says the US has ‘recently sold Israel several hundred deep-earth penetrator bombs.’ (
    Could just be rumour, but…

  14. Ouch! And so correct (in my view). Apparently, Americans (and I am one of them) would prefer we play at being a hyperpower rather than really being one.

    All I know is: We (and I mean the world) are potentially in big doo-doo for the foreseeable future.

  15. Fallows had a similar thesis in a recent Atlantic Monthly article on Bush’s lost year here (paid subscription required)

    Some excerpts here.

    The PR war seems to be failing according to some advisers as well.

  16. Its ahrd to see how taking out the Iranina nuclear program would involve more than a couple of thousand troops – why would they want to or need to invade the whole country?

  17. The use of civilian troops in Iraq doesn’t mean America has exhaused its forces. It’s actually part of the process of keeping its regular forces fresh and ready for other activity.

    American doctrine explicitly provides for being able to simultaneously fight major conflicts in two theatres while also preserving the ability to defend continental America. It has the forces to do this.

    Of the carriers and their associated powerful battle groups, seven are on station or in standard deployment training. The other five are in scheduled maintenance and could be deployed in ten weeks.

  18. Giles wrote “Its ahrd to see how taking out the Iranina nuclear program would involve more than a couple of thousand troops ”

    They have to be sure they get the nukes and all parts of the program that makes them. US (and western) intelligence on Iran is negligable – there is no guarentee that the US know where all the nukes are. If the US doesn’t get them all then (a) it is a failed misiion; and (b) gives the Iranians a pretty good reason to hit back with anything they have left.

    Those ‘several thousand troops’ have to be protected from anything the Iranians care to throw at them. When we went into East Timor we took our anti-aircraft missile batteries and moved nearly all our F-18s up to Darwin. Of course, West Timorese militia don’t have aircraft, so who were the antiaircraft missiles and F-18s for? And there was a US carrier that was moved down much much closer to Indonesia as well.

    There is no way the Yanks would send only a couple of thousand troops.
    If they want to find all the nuclear material they will have to shut the country down otherwise they’ll just be playing an extended game of tag.
    The type of bomb they are worried about is a low-yield ‘suitcase’ or ‘dirty’ bomb and they are very easy to move around.

  19. The pentagon has run war game scenarios on Iran and admit that none of the outcomes so far look very pretty.

    But since when has hyperpower come to mean omnipotent uber-nation? There have always been limits on US power and clearly the continued occupation of Iraq adds some extra drag. So what? Unless some other power supersede’s it in the mean time, Iraq will be a transient moment in the history of US hegemony.

  20. Have any of the people in this thread who think signifcant military intervention in Iran actually looked at a map of the place? It’s nearly all mountainous – very mountainous. No simple matter of driving your tanks around anything nasty that’s in your way, or bombing everything to shit from 20,000 feet. I think the US military is very aware of what it will encounter in Iran and has absolutely no desire to fight there, and won’t. They are not easybeats like the Iraqi Army. Not to mention what the Iranians could do to Persian Gulf traffic, and did anybody say Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan? Ha!


  21. The Yanks don’t need to do anything about Iran’s nuclear threat, because if (when) they get too close, the Israelis will bomb them again, just like last time.

    Yes indeedy. The Iranians, a people developing an atomic bomb and expanding their influence subtly throughout the Islamic parts of the former Soviet Union, are far too stupid to ever ever learn from experience…

  22. Fyodor

    I am well aware of the rotation, refit and training for the Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups. The fact those ideal maintenance and training cycles are in place doesn’t mean that they can’t be re-arranged.

    Your use of the terms dissarray and shattered are hardly appropriate. Just because some formations have had a fairly high operational tempo and are tired does not mean that they are in dissarray or shattered. Having worked with US Forces on a number of occaisions I believe they would take exception at that remark.

    As for using Artillery and Armour as Infantry, well lets see – when I was in an Armoured unit we did a weeks dismounted training every year because that was a secondary role. In Somolia, the Aussie Artillery were used for Civil Affairs Liaison, and in East Timor I’m pretty sure the drop shorts were doing a lot of patrolling. Amazing. (The reason the Artillery wear white lanyards is so that they can dye it any colour they need too.)

    The 2nd Armored Div could be removed from South Korea, (fuck – some South Koreans are demanding it!) because the South Korean Military is more than well prepared to defend their turf. That is only a political issue – they could rotate 25ID in from Hawaii, as they regularly do.

    The USMC is not fully engaged in Iraq.

    And as for the notion of not having a strategic reserve – poppycock and balderdash – go onto the official US DOD websites and look at their order of battle, even assuming it is hollow, so divide it by three – there is shit loads of strategic reserve.

    The US have done Iraq without doing more than break into a light sweat. They have not fully mobilised their Reserve and National Guard. They have increased the budget deficit, which will more than likely turn out to have the same impact as the Reagan deficit did. It is not a huge impact. Wait till they really get up and running, if they want too.

    I agree on the stupid run down of forces post Cold War and the rest of the Western World has been just as stupid. Australia showed that in both Somalia and Iraq where our logistics systems barely coped.

  23. Jack Strocchi’s reference to the subtle use of soft power as a potent instrument of US foreign policy raises the question of US rationale for choosing hard power over soft power, or vice versa.

    Choice, it may be argued, is influenced by geopolitical interest: the like Georgia before it, Ukraine, for example, is a buffer state of strategic interest to the US but not important economically. Iraq, on the other hand, figures large in US calculations for its energy future.* [See break-out below]

    It might be argued the the Bush administration chooses exercise of soft power from convenience and exercise of hard power from necessity.

    Certainly, the US hyperpower that it may be, is still a little chary about trespassing too insultingly into the sphere of influence of Russia, the erstwhile other superpower.

    There also seems to be a racist element to Bush administration choice of modality. White Christians in the old Soviet Union find their sensibilities more solicitously acknowledged than semetic Muslims in the Middle East.


    *On the subject of US economic interests in Iraq it is noteworthy that Bush amended within the last 24 hours his notorious Executive Order 13303, ending the proclaimed state of national emergency, but maintaining the immunity of private oil interests from prosecution. On the other hand, the immunity of the Iraqi government from prosecution is rescinded, backdated to the end of June 2004.

  24. You make excellent points Razor. But one question which has always dogged me considering the supposed availability of excess ground troops for a possible continuation of hostilities in other theatres. If:

    1) there is extra slack in US forces as you suggest, and..
    2) they clearly need more troops in Iraq now (read Black Watch redeployment, re-enlistment of discharged Reserve and National Guard troops)

    Then why don’t they use those troops now? It’s one thing to say that they COULD use those troops, but they SHOULD be using them now – and they’re not. Why? Presuming you are correct of course.

  25. It is your, and others, opinion that the Coalition need more troops in Iraq. That does not gel with what the hierachy are saying – they say they have enough troops on the ground in Iraq. See comments in the last 24 hours by CINC CENTCOMM and many others.

    The Black Watch redeployment was a media beat up. It was quiet down South and they wanted more troops near their main effort. Big f***ing deal. One Battalion Group re-orientation in a Corps size theater is not a big deal. The beat up about this was crap promoted by lefty politicians and media that directly caused British casualties. I have no doubt that the media hype caused the terrorists to deliberately target, and film for their friends in the media, the Black Watch. The blood of those soldiers is on the hands of the politicians and media who beat this up. I couldn’t believe the Blair government made it public.

    As for the man managemnt of the US Forces – that is what you put your hand up for when you sign on. It is not as if they have fully mobilised. In fact one of the reasons for the lack of need for a draft is that the US learnt it’s lesson from Vietnam, when they didn’t mobilise the Reserve or National Guard, and are using these resources on an as required basis.

    One of the major reasons they do not want more troops is that more and more Iraqi forces are completing their training and coming on line. This is good strategy because making the Iraqis responsible for their own security will, as they become more succesful, allow a reduction in Coalition forces over time and let the Iraqis take over runing their country.

    In summary they dont need or want extra troops and the Iraqi forces are increasing in size and effectiveness anyway.

    Edited for coarse language, JQ

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