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. Okay fair enough. Iraq does not need more US troops. They are not stretched. Any reports to suggest otherwise are a media beatup, which is primarily the fault of the Left, who of course have blood on their hands. Therefore the US is quite capable of starting another war with Iran. Gotcha.

    Anyone care to dispute this? There is a militarily ignorant mind up for grabs here.

  2. Razor wrote: “The Black Watch redeployment was a media beat up. … “I couldn’t believe the Blair government made it public.”

    I was in England at the time and this issue dominated the headlines and parliament for days. It came out because many said that a secret deal had been done by Blair to bail out the ‘over-stretched US forces’. They argued that since it was in the American zone the Americans should supply fresh troops if they were needed, not the UK. They wanted a debate in parliament which Blair vacilitated on until it was conveniently too late – many said the decision was made before the issue blew up.
    Not only did this mean everyone was told the Black Watch were moving, it was also revealed why they were moving: to allow US forces to be moved for the coming attack on Fallujah. Note that this was three weeks before they went into Fallujah. No wonder most of the insurgents there scarped. I don’t seriously beleive that the US thought they were inviting the insurgents to a stand-up fight.

    It all is a bit reminiscent of the press revealing the Argentinians had fused their bombs incorrectly during the Falklands War.

  3. 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.

    A nice statement of the disaster Bush has created for the US. All true anti-Americans cheered at Bush’s re-election.

  4. Here’s a suggestion, JQ: why not set up a “black museum” of examples of the sort of thing you’ve seen fit to edit for coarse language etc., for our general edification and instruction – the larger meaning of “amusement” – with identifying information redacted to protect the guilty?

  5. I said, Anyone care to dispute this? There is a militarily ignorant mind up for grabs here.

    Oh c’mon. I’ve given you Lefties a whole day. Persuade me. Don’t leave me to Razor, The Enforcer over here. Anybody? Anybody? Oh well.

    [Mind lurches relunctantly to the Right]

  6. Welcome to the right JC, although I don’t see how understanding military capability has a political bias.

    Kind regards

  7. JC, your irony alerts were on!

    Just to put things in terms of simple arithmetic, the active duty military (Army+Marines) has about 700 000 members. Iran is bigger than Iraq and an occupation would face more vigourous opposition, so let’s suppose it would require a sustained commitment of 250 000, making 400 000 or so for the Middle East as a whole. Standard doctrine for these things calls for one year in the field and two years out, but lets say that they stick to one year on, one year off.

    That’s 800 000 troops needed. Even pushing the National Guard, Reserves and so on to the limits, and stripping everything else to the bare minimum, it can’t be done with current resources.

    Of course, the US is a rich and populous country. Given a hefty tax increase and the reintroduction of the draft, it could easily put a million troops into the field. I don’t think GWB is the man for this, but others may disagree.

  8. Given that the Europeans have been leading the push on Iran, wouldn’t one expect them to contribute some forces?

  9. If the worst came to the worst, a substantial European commitment would be needed.

    Hence, the US can’t act without the Europeans and has been forced to leave the running to them, despite strong US disagreement with the way the Europeans are doing things. At least in my understanding of the term, this is not the behaviour of a hyperpower.

  10. John, thanks for the heads-up. The irony alerts are now off. Damn switch was busted.

    Razor, from what I’ve gathered in my recent stroll around the blogosphere is that the anti-war Left thinks Iran can’t be done and the pro-war Right thinks it can. I agree that understanding military capability shouldn’t be political – tell it to them.

    So let me get my head around this. On the one hand there could well be available troops amongst deployed and non-deployed units not serving in Iraq. And given things are going along just fine there, there is nothing to suggest any more would be required for Iran. Yes?

    But on the other hand, it may be a simple question of arithmetic. A third fighting, a third training and third resting, I once heard. It doesn’t add up. Right?

    Of course, to be sure, the US should definitely get the cooperation of the Europeans if worst comes to worst otherwise we’re all stuffed. I think, that you are agreed.

    It seems I am starting to understand this issue – nobody knows anything, and I should just have a drink and lie down.

    [Walks to the mini-bar. Lurches back to the centre]

    Damn irony switch!

  11. This interpretation is not fair to the Americans, and doubtful as to its figures. First, America dislikes invasions and war as much as anyone and would prefer a diplomatic solution.

    Second, my understanding is that American plans expect that 12 Divisions (120,000 troops) would suffice to take Iran, along with about 3,000 special forces troops and five carriers off the coast. Three of those carriers are not far away. The important criteria is not population or area but quality of the initial air defence.

    Note that Iraq also was thought by pundits to be capable of fierce resistance, but fell easily. It even had gone to the trouble of protecting its Mig fighters in “impregnable” concrete bunkers. Those bunkers were of course destroyed in the early air campaign.

    Let us hope there is no further bloodshed in the region. But it’s not correct to dismiss US capability for force projection as exhausted.

  12. Tony, do the planners who advise you have any plans for a subsequent occupation? The Iraq occupation is failing badly with a force larger than the one you mention.

    Or is the notion that the US can take Teheran, spend a month or two destroying nuclear facilities and then pull out, leaving an enemy country with a population of 70 million sharing borders with Iraq and Afghanistan?

    Unless the US plans to abandon the whole region, notions like “force projection” are totally irrelevant.

  13. John, I’m not advised by planners, just as I’m sure you’re not. I was simply pointing out that your figures may have been high, and that this affects your observation about whether an occupation could be sustained and, in turn, the motivation for diplomatic solutions.

  14. I think we are talking at cross-purposes about force projection, military capacity and regime change. Pr Q is talking about the manpower required for regime change. The others are talking about the firepower required for military prevalence in normal warfare.
    The US military, given current force structures, could destroy any other conventional military on Earth, purely by air and sea power. The US’s international offensive armament (ICBMs, boomer subs, carriers, long range bombers, logistics bases) is about an order of magnitude more effective than any single one of its rivals in the PRC, CIS, USE, JAP and OPEC state federations.
    This they can do because the US homeland is pretty much invulnerable to everything but long range missiles and terrorists. So the US can scrimp on national defence and spend money on international offence. So a military action to destroy another military apparat, as a punitive mission or pre-emptive strike, is easily within the US DoD’s powers.
    But a military actions for the purposes of regime change turns the strategy from international offensive to national defensive. This kind of action takes up huge amounts of manpower.
    The US military’s order of battle is currently not constituted for a waging two preventive wars of conquest, or liberation, at the same time. Therefore talk of more offensive warfare as a prelude to regime change is complete hooey.
    The credible threat of regime change is the basis for the claim to US hyperpower. It follows that the US’s current military force structure is not sufficient to enforce its political pretensions. So Pr Q’s criticism is valid, so far as it goes.

  15. Actually, the USA does have the resources etc. to achieve regime change anywhere – provided it vastly changes its methods. The old trick is to use regular incursions and ringbark the area in question, then rebuild on the ashes. It’s what happened to Asia Minor.

    Even if the USA has the sustained will over time, the catch is, what if something else comes up? It’s like a patient skipping on a course of drugs. After all, Turkey and southern Italy may now exist where once the Greeks held sway, but a – much transformed – Greece still exists, grown back in the face of a once mighty power that had become the sick man of Europe. It’s not for nothing that the myth of the Hydra of Lerna used that idea of growing back in the face of insult; one must add the injury of cautery to be effective.

  16. Regime change score board –

    US/Coalition – 2 Enemy – 0.

    (Actually I would say 3 – 0 if you include Libya’s change of heart). I always think “look at the scoreboard” is the best retort when you are getting sledged by a losing opposition.

  17. Stable functioning country score board
    US/Coalition: 0 from 2

    As numerous people have said before, Razor, it doesn’t matter that the US won militarily. It hasn’t won Iraq yet. Your Regime Change is worthless – mostly because it is a Regime Removal scoreboard not a Regime Change.
    Iraq has no regime at the moment. It has martial law and is simply not a functioning country.
    Afghanistan has become a series of fiefdoms. The UN only has control of Kabul.

    A militarily insignificant unpopular despotic government held in power by bribes has been replaced by an unpopular medieval situation held together by bribes.
    A militarily weak unpopular mass-murdering dictatorship hasn’t yet been replaced by an unpopular puppet government.

    So your score board should look more like this:

    Old Regimes gone: 2.
    Useful Regimes established: None.

    If the US goes into Iran it will be:
    Old Regimes gone: 3
    Useful Regimes implemented: None.
    Extra-unhappy Muslims: 1 billion

    The coalation has killed far more Iraqis than they have lost.
    So what?
    It doesn’t mean they are winning.

    Here’s another scoreboard for you Razor.

    Osama bin Ladens Free: 1
    Osama bin Ladens Captured: 0

  18. Gotta say Razor old stick, you’re not looking like a winner being sledged. You’re looking like a person being comprehensively out-manouevred at each turn.

    Harry has been on fire all week, and it’s been a pleasure reading someone who seems to be very well-versed in his subject matter. His point, and that of others above, that a military victory is irrelevant if the post-script is not handled with foresight, and vision is a key one.

    It’s the long-term future of the middle-east that’s at stake here, not a points scoring blogument.

  19. Unlike you gentlemen, I do not, and have never pretended that a new perfect democracy would immediatley spring up to replace the old regimes. I understand that when a society has been so amoral for so long it will take time, effort and support to build a belief in the rule of law and the democracy and the institutions that support those. I can see the troops still in Japan, Korea, Cyprus, Golan Heights, East Timor, the Falklands. I have no problem with doing what ever is required for however long to get the job done.

    I do not understand why, if things have not improved in Afghanistan for instance, that around 3 million refugees have returned to the country. Is that not an indicator of improvement?

    In the particular case of the terrorists operating in Iraq, why do they keep attacking not only coalition forces but the Iraqi security forces also? Because the rule of law and democracy is an anathema to their interests. Are you saying that removal of Saddam was a failure because these terrorists were not able to be offered power in their own right? What was your plan for the removal of Saddam that would have been acceptable to these current terrorists? Or do you think that Saddam and the Taliban should have been left in power?

  20. Actually I would say 3 – 0 if you include Libya’s change of heart.

    Which you can’t, because they haven’t had one; Gaddafi is simply playing a much smarter PR game these days. There’s not the slightest evidence that Libya has ceased its support for terrorism – they are still on the official State Department list of terrorist sponsors. Even in very recent times there is evidence of Libyan involvement in a plot to assassinate Saudi Prince Abdullah.

    Of course, this didn’t stop lobbyists paid by the Libyan government from being allowed to contribute to Bush’s re-election campaign. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

  21. “Unlike you gentlemen, I do not, and have never pretended that a new perfect democracy would immediatley spring up to replace the old regimes.”
    America’s actions procluded this happening anyway.
    # I never thought a new perfect democracy would spring forth. When did I say it would? If you had asked I’d have said Iraq’s democracy would look much more like Elizabethan England than current day Australia. Mind you I don’t hold ‘democracy’ in the religious awe that the neo-cons do. I would have gone with something like Jordan’s political arrangements and been quite happy with that. Democracy comes from within.
    An analogy would be Australia not becoming a republic – tribalism is strong. Why does Britain have a House of Lords?

    “I understand that when a society has been so amoral for so long…”
    What the does amorality have to do with anything?

    “I can see the troops still in Japan, Korea, Cyprus, Golan Heights, East Timor, the Falklands.”
    I don’t see the relevance of any of these. Did you want me to take each of these in turn and explain why they aren’t like installing democracy in Iraq?
    Y’know like England always stations troops on it’s outposts like the Falklands and Gibraltar.
    Or like East Timor still has troops in it because the government has asked for the troops to remain because they have no money because some dipsh!t country dragged it’s feet over working out the oil and gas which is East Timor’s only source of useful income.
    Or like, Golan Heights is all about strategic positioning and nothing about democracy ebcause whoever sits on the Golan Heights can watch every single aircraft take off from Israel.
    Or like Cyprus is in a ceasefire after what was effectively civil war and while they work it all out politically the UN (including AFP officers – Hoorah!)keeps the two sides apart.
    Or like how the North Korean government is a suspicious, unpredictable, weirdarse state and they really do seem to understand that a buttload of US marines make a really good tripwire.
    Or how America just doesn’t want to let go of their piece of Japan. Oh hang on – that does sound like Iraq.

    “I do not understand why, if things have not improved in Afghanistan for instance, that around 3 million refugees have returned to the country.
    Is that not an indicator of improvement?”
    Sure, it’s improvement. I wasn’t saying it wasn’t – just that it doesn’t represent the triumph of democracy that you think it does. 3 million people voting with their feet is impressive, but if they are just resuming where they left off (y’know – listening to music and growning opium) before the Taliban arrived then what exactly has the invasion achieved? I am not surpirsed that, living in your homeland without the Taliban around is better than sitting in a refugee camp.

    “In the particular case of the terrorists operating in Iraq, why do they keep attacking not only coalition forces but the Iraqi security forces also?”
    For the same reason Maquis fighters killed Vichy policemen.

    “Because the rule of law and democracy is an anathema to their interests.”
    No, because they are more concerned about being occupied than the rule of law and democracy right now. I believe the lyric saying is “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees”.
    Calling all Iraqi fighters ‘Terrorists’ achieves nothing other than a reinforcement of wilful ignorance. It would be like saying all right-wingers are Dick Cheney clones. It completely misrepresents the situation. It would mean for instance, that you didn’t acknowledge that (for vast amounts of the country) tribal bonds are stronger than a nationalistic feeling for Iraq as a concept.
    Why have democracy when you have a tribe? The tribal elders go and have ther meetings with other tribal elders, as they have done for millenia.

    “Are you saying that removal of Saddam was a failure because these terrorists were not able to be offered power in their own right?”
    Again with the terrorists. No I am saying the removal of Saddam was a success. However, the attempted replacement of him has been an unmitigated failure.
    You’re setting up a false dichotomy here. You are saying that:
    Remove Saddam and Impose Western Style Democracy
    or
    Surrender to Terrorism.
    This is patently absurd.

    “What was your plan for the removal of Saddam that would have been acceptable to these current terrorists?”
    Step one: I won’t call you a terrorist if you won’t call me a filthy capitalistic westerner.

    Step 2: Tribal council. Then a combination of carrot and stick – basically: foreign aid and reconstruction will flow so long as Iraq is a single country and none of you tribal leaders gets stupid ideas in his head.
    I mean, just look at how the Kurds and the Yanks get along now. The Kurds even helped root out Ansar al-Islam – a terrorist group they’d had no real reason to go after until the Yanks gave them a reason.
    Note that Ansar al-Islam is the group cited as the terrorist group Saddam was “supporting” because he wasn’t eliminating them (note the false dichotomy). Funny how Ansar al-Islam had been protected by a UN no-fly zone for the previous decade and, even without the no fly zone, Saddam would have had to go through 75,000 armed Kurds to get to them.

    “Or do you think that Saddam and the Taliban should have been left in power?”
    You are insinuating the only way there could be regime change is by military action from a foreign power.
    Any argument for their removal has to explain why a whole heap of other dictators won’t be.
    Anyone claiming the moral high ground for their removal by outside military means probably shouldn’t support similar governments or indeed the same governments 2 years before (in the case of the Taliban) or (20 years before in the case of Saddam).
    The fantasist in me says that 200,000 UN Special Forces troops should immedeately eject all harmful governments from the world and usher in a New Age of People Being Excellent to Each Other and Partying On, Dudes.
    The realist in me says, yes they should have been allowed to stay in power. “Kept in power” is another false dichotomy.

    Tell me, because you are not giving that homeless person a home does that mean you are stopping them from having a home?

  22. Sorry, that should have read:
    Step one: I won’t call you a terrorist if you won’t call me a filthy capitalistic IMPERIALISTIC westerner.

Comments are closed.