US Plans To Cut Defense Spending, Yet World Not At Peace – Iraq Is In Turmoil – Iran Threatening To Close The Straits Of Hormuz – Will Smaller US Forces Deter Enemies?

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By Paolo von Schirach

January 9, 2012,

WASHINGTON – The Obama narrative to justify forthcoming drastic defense cuts goes like this:” Well, now that we are terminating our season of wars, we can take a deep breath and start cutting down an overextended military that had grown too much because of these conflicts“. The inference is that we can relax and lower our guard because now there is peace. But this is manifestly false. And this superficial optimism disguises a dangerous lack of understanding that the military is an instrument to secure the safeguarding of US national interests. Lack of hostilities today does not mean that the kind of peace we want has been reached.

All is well?

Indeed, wars are not just about prevailing against opponents in the field. They are about achieving policy objectives. In our eagerness to terminate deployments, have we achieved our goals? I am not so sure. Are we removing troops, (Iraq today, Afghanistan a bit later), because we are tired of being there, or because we have reached the goal of a safe and secure Iraq? It should be the latter, of course. But, in this case, even a cursory look at Iraq tells us that the country we just left is in serious trouble.

Iraq is a mess

To start with, we have daily news about bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere. America did not leave behind a cohesive, peaceful Iraq. Besides, US experts report their Baghdad contacts saying that “it feels like 2005 all over again“, that is to say the current situation resembles the period that preceded the explosion of sectarian violence that almost destroyed the country. Indeed, while Iraq under US tutelage developed at least some of the formal institutions of a representative democracy, the country is deeply divided along the usual fault lines: Shia majority v. Sunni minority, with the Kurds in the North behaving as a semi-independent country.

It is true that the US had limited leverage in convincing the Iraqis to keep substantial US troops in their country beyond the December 2011 deadline negotiated way back by the Bush administration and enshrined in the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA. But it seems that Obama who, as you will recall campaigned in 2008 against the war in Iraq, did not insist that much.

Sectarian violence

Be that as it may, just as the last Americans were leaving, sectarian violence exploded once again. To make matters worse, the Shia Government presided over by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the most senior Sunni member of the government, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, of terrorism. Hashemi not surprisingly maintains that this is just an anti-Sunni political ploy. And so he fled to the Kurdish north where he feels safe. Meanwhile, Sunni terrorists almost daily explode car bombs in Baghdad reinforcing an atmosphere of confusion and lawlessness.

Did America succeed in Iraq?

Will this new wave of violence reignite a serious civil strife? Who knows really. But from a US perspective, after the 2003-2011 occupation, leaving behind an unstable and potentially ungovernable country should be a source of serious concern. And yet I have not noticed such concern when President Obama announced major defense spending cuts a few days ago in a Pentagon speech.

Mission not accomplished

On the contrary, we are told that, because we no longer need troops in Iraq as the country is happily taking care of its own business, we can cut defense spending –and this includes all the extra soldiers that were recruited to carry on the Iraq operation. While Pentagon planners may very well have elaborated (at least I hope so) contingencies to deal with a sudden crisis in Iraq, the official line about defense cuts because we are now at peace runs against the facts. No, Iraq is not really at peace. And, on account of this elementary fact, the end of the Iraq campaign cannot be called a success. Even for president Obama, “Mission is not accomplished“.

A stable Iraq is worth a lot more than killing Osama bin Laden

Incidentally, the notion that Obama is tough in foreign and security policy because US drones have killed a number of Taliban in Pakistan and because US special ops troops finally nabbed Osama bin Laden, is a bit silly. Sure enough, killing bin Laden was a good thing. But this is not 2001. In 2011, killing Osama was a tactical victory in a secondary front. Dismantling al Qaeda is important. But keeping Iraq together and away from Iranian influence is 100 times more important.

Iran threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz

By the same token, it is of no comfort to hear General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chief, state publicly that, yes, Iran has the capability to block the Straits of Hormuz through which so much of the world oil supplies transit every day. True enough, Dempsey also said that the US has the capability to reopen the Straits.

But the world leading military power should be in a strong enough position to make it clear to everybody that the Straits are totally and completely safe because they are under the protection of US forces. Mighty America should be able to openly say to Iran that there would be incalculable and irreparable damage to their country is they even try to block the Straits. Whereas, looking at these somewhat timid public pronouncements, it is not clear that the US believes that it has enough resources and demonstrable guts to deter Iran from doing something so stupid.

Can America deter Iran?

Indeed, the very fact that we are even discussing the contingency of an obstruction caused by Iran’s hostile actions means that the US national security leadership is not so sure of the deterrent value of its forces in theatre and beyond. And the same wavering leaders now tell us that it is time to cut down our forces because the world is at peace. Somehow, I do not trust the strength of their analysis.

Is America determined to protect its vital interests?

As the Romans stated long time ago: “Si vis pacem, para bellum“, “If you want peace, get ready for war“. Indeed, the essence of deterrence is to impress upon the bad guys that they should not even think about it, let alone try. Even discussing what we are going to do after the Iranians have obstructed the energy life line on which half the world depends is not part of good deterrence.

Looking ahead, if this administration determination is questionable today, with a larger amount of forces at its disposal, I am afraid (assuming a second term for president Obama) that when they will have a smaller force at hand their willingness to aggressively defend US interests around the world will be even less pronounced.


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