Imperialism for a Cash-Strapped Era: Storms below the Surface – Part I

The United States’ defence strategy unveiled by President Barack Obama in Washington on January 5 has been occasioned by the need to slash the spending of the Pentagon by nearly half a trillion dollars over the next decade. There is undeniably some merit in the viewpoint that this is a strategy that has been driven by budget woes – although Obama and the Pentagon chief Leon Panetta have insisted that it is indeed a pure strategy.

In Obama’s own words, “The tide of war is receding but the question that this strategy answers is what kind of military will we [US] need long after the wars of the last decade are over.”

But a harsh contrarian estimation has been attributed to the influential Republican chairman of the US House Armed Forces Committee Representative Buck McKeon who said, “This is a lead-from-behind strategy for a left-behind America. The president has packaged our [US’s] retreat from the world in the guise of a new strategy to mask his divestment of our military and national defence.”

The argument can be settled with some certainty only by next month when the US defence department spells out the allocations under its proposed 2013 budget and we get to know where the cuts are being made.

Indeed, another $ 500 billion across-the-board “sequestration” cuts will also take effect in 2013 unless Congress repeals them. Panetta has already warned that such a fiscal hit would be a catastrophe for US defence.

Last week, Panetta indicated that the Pentagon would be fielding a “smaller and meaner” military force, while other administration officials have been quoted as saying that the Army and Marine Corps personnel levels might be reduced by 10 to 15 percent through the coming decade.

On the whole, therefore, Gordon Adams, a professor who worked on budgets in the Bill Clinton White House, was spot on: “This is a classic resource-driven strategy document. That’s not a criticism, that’s just a reality. It’s inevitable. Strategy always wears a dollar sign.”

So, is this the end of history? Is the US imperialism on retreat on the world arena? Are the Marines packing bags and returning home for family reunion and for a life happily ever after? Actually, the defence strategy document is deceptive. The more things seemed to change, the more they would remain the same.

The heart of the matter is that the United States is making adjustments by way of preparing for another Cold War, and unlike Cold War I against the Soviet Union, this will be primarily fought in the Asia-Pacific. But before getting into that, the salient of the national defence strategy needs to be understood.

In a nutshell, the US would prefer not to get involved in any massive land invasions such as in Afghanistan in 2011 or Iraq in 2003 and the priority will be on cyberwarfare and unmanned drones. The US forces “will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations”, the document says, and even small overseas incursions will be rarer, since “with reduced resources, thoughtful choices will need to be made regarding the location and frequency of these operations.”

The US will reduce the number of nuclear weapons in its inventory as well as review their role in the overall security strategy. It’s goodbye to the decades-old goal of a unilateral US force that can fight two major ground wars simultaneously, and instead the objective will be to “fight and deter” – to fight one-and-a-half wars. Also, US will as far as possible operate with allied and coalition forces.

In short, it’s boom times ahead for US military contractors, spies and drones and contractor-managed military logistics overseas – and for close allies like Britain and Australia (unlike France or Germany) who are unfailingly partner the Marines as they set out for foreign intervention as well as new partners like Qatar.

The plan is indeed to shrink the military significantly and to rely much more on the capacity of the air and naval forces to balance a competitor like China or face down an antagonist like Iran.

Assymetric challenges

The shrinking necessitates downsizing Cold War-era military presence in Europe. At the same time, the US will “of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region” and maintain a big presence in the Middle East.

Without doubt, Asia-Pacific now becomes a top priority for the US for meeting the challenge posed by the rising regional power of China. Obama stressed to the media that “we’ll be strengthening our presence in the Asia-Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of this critical region.”

Clearly, to build capacity in Asia-Pacific, the US will drawdown deployments in Europe (but not from the Middle East) and find savings in benefit and retirement costs, Cold war weapon systems and the nuclear arsenal.

The impact of the new defence strategy on regional conflicts and world politics can only be assessed once all answers about direct budget consequences are known in another month. But some preliminary estimation can be made of what the US military footprint will actually look like.

First and foremost, it must be assumed that the US’ intention is indeed to move away from counter-insurgency doctrines, land invasions and ground operations. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since the former secretary of defence Robert Gates went public last year that any future leader who contemplated a war and occupation of a Middle Eastern country “should have his head examined.”

That is to say, Iraq-style military interventions by the US can be virtually ruled out in Syria, Iran or North Korea. The “Libya”-type intervention replaces classic military aggression. A fallback could be the “Iraq”-type operation to change the established territorial boundaries in a slow-motion enterprise. The success of the “Iraq”-type operation depends on tenacity but it is cost-effective.

To be sure, Iran is going to be a test case where short of an “implosion” (which is next-to-impossible), a regime change can only be effected through a massive ground operation of a sort that will involve committing far bigger resources than in the Iraq war in 2003 over an extended period lasting at least a decade to subjugate a nation with a history of resistance and revolution and an ideology-driven power system which enjoys a substantial social base.

On the other hand, Iran also presents an ethnic mosaic.

Having said that, the strategy will be to face down Iran (and China) by projecting US military power in the Persian Gulf or South China Sea and deter Iran’s (or China’s) pursuit of assymetric means – electronic and cyber warfare, ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced air defences, mining, etc. – to counter the US’s power projection capabilities.

The strategy insists that the US will “ensure its ability to operate effectively in anti-access and area denial enviornments… [US] must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged.”

Looking beyond that, the US will continue to exercise its global reach as a superpower to “protect freedom of access throughout the global commons – those areas beyond national jurisdiction that constitute the vital connective tissue of the international system.”

The new strategy estimates that al-Qaeda has been rendered “far less capable”, but nonetheless, it remains active and will continue to threaten US interests and for the “foreseeable future”, an active approach is needed to countering them. The “primary loci of these threats” are perceived to be lying in South Asia and the Middle East. This becomes a justification for continued robust engagement by the US in the two regions.

With regard to Afghanistan, a follow-up to the current drawdown of US troops, a “mix of direct action and security force assistance” is contemplated. By implication, a substantial presence of US combat troops and Special Forces will remain in Afghanistan for a long time to come and the al-Qaeda threat is expected to provide the alibi for the establishment of permanent US military bases.

Quiet lies the steppes

Three core areas in the defence strategy document merit detailed analysis, since they have profound implications for the regional and international security for the period ahead – US’s drawdown in Europe, consolidation in the Middle East and the “rebalancing” toward Asia-Pacific.

The document repeatedly mentions that the trans-Atlantic alliance and North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] will remain the anchor sheet of the US’s global strategies in the 21st century.

In fact, the criticality of the alliance is such that NATO’s role is no longer confined to Europe’s territorial limits but will be on a global scale at a time when the US gives primacy to future military interventions in foreign lands jointly with the alliance system rather than as unilateralist enterprise.

Second, the document makes it clear that the US is far from withdrawing from Europe. The drawdown of the Cold War era military presence is advisable since a country like Germany would increasingly like to be on its own and it is also prudent since Russia by no stretch of imagination poses any security threat to western Europe.

So the emergent geopolitical reality is that the US will have “enduring interests” in the so-called frozen conflicts in parts of Europe and Eurasia as well as other security challenges, which can be adequately met with as and when contingencies arise.

In short, Washington proposes to seize “a strategic opportunity to rebalance the US military investment in Europe” so that it can optimally focus on developing “future capabilities” that are suitable for a “resource-constrained era”. The new mantra is “Smart Defence”. Of course, the US’s commitments to Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter will remain unwavering and no one should cast an evil eye on the US’s NATO allies.

Russia is mentioned in the document in the above context en passe as a country with which the US will continue to engage selectively. But no assurances have been held out on the deployment of the US’s missile defence system in its periphery or on the future expansion of NATO. The pointed reference to US’s determination to involve in “security challenges and unresolved conflicts” in Eurasia, on the other hand, puts Washington somewhat at odds with the Moscow-led accelerating integration processes under way in the region, especially between now and 2015.

An interesting puzzle is what would happen if the Arab Spring were to arrive on the Central Asia steppes. All indications are that such a scenario is increasingly in the US’s consideration zone. Ambassador William Courtney, who used to be the US’s envoy to Astana wrote an article only last week – interestingly, in the leading Arab daily Khaleej Times – pondering deeply over the future of Kazakhstan. “Kazakhstan at a precipice”, the title of the article, said it all.

He underscored “important US interests” in Kazakhstan ranging from “energy production to the elimination of nuclear and biological weapons to the transit of vital NATO supplies to Afghanistan.” (Some US commentators have lately begun to cite Kazakhstan as the real “hub” of the Northern Distribution Network, rather than Uzbekistan.) Courtney wrote:

“People in Kazakhstan who seek greater freedom look to Washington and European capitals for support… Over two decades amid growing wealth and corruption, Kazakhstan’s soft autocracy has hardened… As I have seen in recent trips, much of Kazakhstan has been starved of public investment while Nazarbayev has turned the new capital, Astana, into a mini-Dubai. The privileged few are astoundingly rich. Economic inequality, authoritarian rule and a highly personalized style of government have bread wide resentment.

“Western governments, while carefully balancing their interest, should lose no time in deepening engagement with promising leaders, including younger ones in government. Expanded professional and educational exchanges and democracy training could help prepare the way for a new and more open generation of leaders. Western defence establishments might step up training on military roles in a democracy. A new accord with the European Union ought to expand programs on the rule of law and the OSCE should increase its stabilizing field presence.

“The West has an enormous stake in Kazakhstan, it can do more to help its people shape a democratic future.”

Of course, the bell is tolling not only for Kazakhstan but also for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which the US consider to be rather “low-hanging fruits” in comparison with Kazakhstan that can be easily plucked at leisure or will anyway fall down on their own when the big tree shakes.

Evidently, a game plan for regime change in the Central Asian region is getting ready and could be set in motion if only Kabul is brought under a “friendly” Islamist government and the US succeeds in establishing its military bases in Afghanistan. No doubt, the commotion in the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen on December 16 has been magnified out of proportion by the US commentators, including Courtney.

Thus, it must be concluded that the new defence strategy unveiled in Washington draws a deceptively calm picture of Europe and Eurasia but beneath the curtain, storms are brewing. The storms will gather momentum in direct proportion to the current integration processes in Central Asia leading to the formation of a Eurasian Union by 2015. In short, the crunch time probably just lies ahead.

(to be continued)


Melkulangara Bhadrakumar, Strategic Culture Foundation

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