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May 19, 2004

Imperial Dreams Sink in Iraqi Quagmire

by Jim Lobe

The coalition of Bush administration hawks that was empowered by the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon agreed on three main strategic objectives.

The neo-conservatives and Christian Right wanted to decisively shift the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Israel, so that it could effectively impose peace terms on the Palestinians and Syria and anyone else who resisted U.S. regional hegemony or Israel's legitimacy and territorial claims.

The more globally-oriented strategists – sometimes called ''assertive nationalists'' or Machtpolitikers – wanted to show ''rogue states'', particularly those with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), like North Korea, that the United States could and, more importantly, would take pre-emptive military action to either change their regimes or crush them.

They also wanted to demonstrate to any possible future rival powers that Washington could, and would, intervene militarily in the Persian Gulf region to deny them essential energy supplies as a way of reminding nations of the indispensability of friendly ties with the United States.

All three objectives, it was swiftly agreed by the ascendant hawks, could be achieved by invading and then ''transforming'' Iraq into a pro-western, if not democratic, Arab state.

Moreover, the likely acquisition of more or less permanent access to military bases in Iraq that would fit into a larger, global network of scores of military facilities stretching from East Asia through Central Asia, and from Arabia and the Caucasus through the Mediterranean and the Horn all the way to West Africa would make it even clearer to all that breaking ''Pax Americana'' would risk economic or military ruin.

In order to achieve these objectives, the U.S. not only had to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power, but it also had to occupy the country, and occupy it in a way that would not require many U.S. soldiers, who would be deployed elsewhere along the globe-straddling ''arc of crisis'' to guard the peace.

''The global strategy – all their assumptions – rested on the ability of U.S. forces to move fast, win quickly with overwhelming force, and move out," according to one official. ''Any prolonged conflict or occupation – like what we see in Iraq – threatened the whole structure because we don't have that many forces."

For reasons that are likely to be debated by historians, political scientists, and possibly psychiatrists, for decades the hawks – most of them based in the offices of Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, but probably President George W. Bush as well – firmly believed that Iraqis would either be so grateful for their ''liberation'' from the depredations of Hussein or so awed by the show of U.S. military power that they would support, or at least not actively oppose, a post-war occupation.

Hence, they planned to quickly draw down their troops from the 160,000 who invaded Iraq to just about half that number by the invasion's first anniversary, and to just 30,000 or so by the end of 2004.

The hawks mocked predictions by military officers with experience in peace operations, who warned they would need at least 200,000 troops for at least two years to stabilise Iraq, and by experienced intelligence officers and diplomats, who warned that U.S. forces would not be considered ''liberators'' by important sectors of the Iraqi population.

Now, 14 months later, those warnings have proven prescient, and the confident predictions of the hawks have proven totally unfounded. What is most remarkable is that they never approved contingency plans and are now reacting to the situation in the most ad hoc and incoherent manner imaginable.

Aside from the rising death tolls in clashes between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents, the zigzags over U.S. policy on ''de-Ba'athification'' (or working with former members of Hussein's Ba'ath Party) and other priority issues, Bush's steadily falling approval ratings and the increasingly sharp exchanges between impatient lawmakers in Congress and responsible administration officials, the failure of the hawks' assumptions is most evident in the numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Under the original plan, U.S. troop strength should be down below 100,000 at this point in the occupation. But as is well known, the head of U.S. military operations for the Central Command, Gen John Abizaid, has insisted on retaining at least 136,000 troops on the ground through this year if not the next, too. And that means all those soldiers who were supposed to deploy elsewhere to enforce ''Pax Americana'' are now stuck in Iraq.

''The greatest limiting factor on the empire right now is manpower," according to Chalmers Johnson, an Asia specialist at the University of California at San Diego. ''They are running out of it."

Indeed, the stress on the Army – and, as significantly, on the hawks' imperial strategy – has become even more apparent this week.

According to Paul Sperry of the Hoover Institution, the Pentagon has just launched a massive nationwide call-up of former service members – a total of 118,000 Individual Ready Reserves (IRR) – who have not fully completed their eight-year contractual obligation to the Army.

These people, who have all but formally signed their release papers, are now being ordered to report to their Army National Guard or Army Reserve units for possible activation ''in support of missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations."

News of the IRR activation coincided with Rumsfeld's order to send 3,600 soldiers from the Army's Second Infantry Division based near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) across from North Korea, another ''rogue state'' with WMD, to Iraq. The troops constitute 10 percent of U.S. forces in South Korea and one-half of combat-ready ground troops there.

While the Pentagon insisted the shift will not affect Washington's ability to defend South Korea, the significance of removing troops confronting North Korea was missed by few here. As one unnamed administration official told the Nelson Report, a private newsletter, "We are pulling out our conventional deterrent force in the midst of a self-declared nuclear crisis with North Korea!''

And while Rumsfeld has made no secret of wanting to move those troops from their position as a ''tripwire," Pentagon plans called for them to move to the southern part of the peninsula, not to leave the region altogether.

''The administration has come to recognize that relying on reserves and the national guard are not sufficient for the nature of the occupation they're involved in, and the only ones that are available are in Asia," noted John Gershman, an Asia analyst at New York University, who added the move suggests to Pyongyang that Washington ''is not going to launch a strike against it any time soon."

''Mobilizing the passive reserves [IRR] is probably the last thing they can do before either cutting back on what they're doing, or go to the military draft, or go hire foreigners, but the country can't really afford that," according to Johnson, whose 2003 book, Sorrows of Empire, deals with U.S. military forces overseas.

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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