From the Indispensable Nation to a Very Dispensable One

October 18, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Posted in Political Economy | 9 Comments
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How has it come to this–US-led NATO forces promising safe conduct to the Taliban to negotiate a pact with the puppet government in Kabul to put a face-saving gloss over the inevitable US defeat? Less than two decades ago, the United States had seemed to be the pivot of world politics, the only superpower in the tectonic shifts that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. No state could challenge its power–and when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq dared to invade Kuwait, for the first time since the Korean War, the United States was able to send its forces to battle under the UN flag.

After the swift and brutal victory over Iraq, the Clinton Administration set about setting the rules of world trade, free trade reigned triumphant over the air waves, and when Serbia tried to prevent the secession of Kosovo, US-led NATO forces quickly enabled the rebel province to break free of Belgrade without suffering a single US military casualty. US supremacy over the air was so dominant that the Iraqi and Serbian combat planes did not even attempt to take to the air. The normal calculus of war, Perry Anderson announced, had been suspended.

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After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, the United States quickly mobilized its forces for an assault on Afghanistan. No other military force could have so quickly attacked a country that it did not border. Though the US did not invoke the collective defense clause of the NATO treaty, member states offered their assistance–an offer the US accepted only after the Taliban government had been run out of power, preferring troops only from its Anglophone allies for the invasion itself.

The quick dispersal of the Taliban government emboldened the Bush Administration to train its guns on Iraq once again. This time, key members of the Security Council–Russia, China, France, and Germany–were unwilling to confer legitimacy to a clearly illegal invasion. Massive street marches across the world signaled popular opposition to an invasion of Iraq. Yet once the invasion began, President Chirac allowed US warplanes to fly freely across French airspace and Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer hoped for a speedy collapse of the Iraqi ‘resistance.’

As US forces occupied Iraq, Gregg Easterbrook declared the arms race over. “The extent of American military superiority,” he crowed, “has become almost impossible to overstate. The United States sent five of its nine supercarrier battle groups to the region for the Iraq assault. A tenth Nimitz-class supercarrier is under construction. No other nation possesses so much as one supercarrier, let alone nine battle groups ringed by cruisers and guarded by nuclear submarines.”

“Any attempt to build a fleet that threatens the Pentagon’s would be pointless,” he claimed, “because if another nation fielded a threatening vessel, American attack submarines would simply sink it in the first five minutes of any conflict. (The new Seawolf-class nuclear-powered submarine is essentially the futuristic supersub of ”The Hunt for Red October” made real.) Knowing this, all other nations have conceded the seas to the United States, a reason American forces can sail anywhere without interference. The naval arms race — a principal aspect of great-power politics for centuries — is over.”

With such military assets, the United States could act arbitrarily, violating international law with impunity but this time the tables were quickly turned against the mightiest power in history. Massive resistance on the ground with improvised explosives clearly established the vulnerable underbelly of US power. Small organized resistance groups and suicide bombers were able to inflict unacceptable casualties on the US led forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, US General David Petreus sought eventually to cut their losses by incorporating some 100,000 members of the resistance from the Sunni minority into a revamped Iraqi army. However, once the Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki invited the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to join the government, the Sunni fighters began to desert with the weapons to the al-Qaeda.

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Just as the situation in Iraq is unravelling, so is the situation in Afghanistan, prompting the invitation to the Taliban for talks with the Kabul government. What is particularly striking about the defeat staring the United States in the face in Afghanistan and Iraq is that these are very different from Vietnam. In Vietnam, the national liberation movement was supported by the USSR and China, and enjoyed the support from majority of the world’s governments. The resistance movements in Afghanistan and Iraq have no support, Afghanistan has been in a state of constant war practically since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1978. No sooner that Iraq concluded its disastrous 10-year war with Iran, its attempts to conquer Kuwait led to defeat in the First Gulf War. Between the end of the First Gulf War and the US invasion in 2003, American and British airplanes dropped more bombs on Iraq than had been dropped in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. And yet, these insurgencies have triumphed over the mightiest military force in history–nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers simply cannot stack up against unconventional forces.

Rather than confronting these serious and potentially fatal problems, the commentariat in the United States contends itself with meaningless debates on the advisability of burning the Koran or building a mosque in Manhattan.

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