When Hizbollah fired an Iranian-built C-802 anti-ship cruise missile of Chinese design at an Israeli gunboat off the coast of Lebanon July 14, it encapsulated in one act the multilayered threat that the United States also faces. Despite years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration and congressional leaders seem unprepared to deal with the new century’s international rivalries — and to build the larger military required to face them.
The “war on terrorism” is not just the small-scale, paramilitary affair many envisioned after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The White House’s identification of state-supported terrorism as a greater danger than ad hoc cells has been proven correct. Al-Qaida in Iraq has not become the kind of guerrilla movement that could topple the government. Suicide bombings are bloody and disruptive, but they do not seize territory or establish a rival regime. Al-Qaida tactics are a sign of weakness, and the group does not possess the resources to move up the escalation ladder.
More dangerous is the war being waged in Iraq by militias and hit squads rooted in the Sunni and Shia communities. The gravest threat to the survival of Baghdad’s U.S.-backed democratic government is Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a political movement, a militia and Iranian support.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein in brilliant fashion, but the Muslim way of war is not confined to set-piece battles. To fundamentalist Muslims, the war against the West is perpetual. If campaigns of conquest are not possible, then ghazi (raiding) warfare is. This is more than mere terrorism. It is the tradition of weakening bordering communities by attrition until conquest is possible. It has been the common practice of Muslim empires over the centuries, and is now quite evident in Iran’s strategy to dominate the region.
Hizbollah and Hamas have established territorial enclaves, armed and financed by Iran. Even before Hamas won the election in Gaza, it was acting as an alternative regime. Hizbollah surged into southern Lebanon after Israel unilaterally withdrew from the buffer zone it had been holding. The Western notion that war is an abnormal state of affairs — to be resolved by signed agreements so that peace can resume — has no place in their militant culture.
The United States encountered this kind of thinking during the Cold War. Communist insurgencies ran for years, using the strategy of protracted warfare to wear down opponents. U.S. policymakers still have nightmares of North Vietnam’s use of this strategy, which drew heavily on Chinese and Russian aid. North Korea’s militarized state is another example of why the idea of a harmonious, post-Cold War era so popular in the 1990s was mistaken.
The intransigence of Iran and North Korea rests on their belief that the United States is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, without the military strength or domestic support to confront other aggressors. And behind both “rogue” regimes sits China, giving them diplomatic, economic and military support. If Washington is deterred from acting against Tehran or Pyongyang, then Beijing has little to worry about. China has pulled Russia into closer alignment while making inroads with anti-American movements across Latin America and Africa.
Because the force-level cuts made after the Soviet Union disintegrated have not been reversed, U.S. ground combat units lack the depth to sustain operations on multiple fronts. This is true even when the scale of the wars is much smaller than that in Vietnam or Korea. The old “two-war” standard for U.S. force sizing — de facto abandoned in 1993 and formally discarded in 2001 — should be brought back.
If the United States wants to maintain its superpower status, it will have to return to Cold War levels of military preparedness. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s midterm review of the 2007 budget projected a declining deficit for the rest of the decade, even with revenues taking a smaller than normal share of gross domestic product (GDP) due to tax cuts. Defense spending has been rising since 2001, but is inadequate to expand force levels or even maintain them. Its 2005 level of 4.3 percent of GDP was the highest since 1994, but that was a year when a new era of peace was allegedly dawning.
Today’s core defense effort is still well below the average of 5.8 percent of GDP for the 1975-1994 period. Indeed, at no time during that 20-year period was defense spending as a share of GDP as low as it is today.
The United States needs a military establishment with the depth and numbers for protracted low-level campaigns, decisive operations against regional states and high-end deterrence to maintain a favorable global balance of power. Twenty years of economic growth should have made it easier to expand and transform the military, as was done in the 1980s.
The problem is politics, not economics. If Congress and the White House do not want to expend what is necessary to support America’s current global role, then policy should shift toward an isolationist stance, which is all declining force levels can support.
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