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Think of this as a little imperial folly update -- and here's the backstory. In the years after invading Iraq and disbanding Saddam Hussein's military, the U.S. sunk about $25 billion into "standing up" a new Iraqi army. By June 2014, however, that army, filled with at least 50,000 "ghost soldiers," was only standing in the imaginations of its generals and perhaps Washington. When relatively small numbers of Islamic State (IS) militants swept into northern Iraq, it collapsed, abandoning four cities -- including Mosul, the country's second largest -- and leaving behind enormous stores of U.S. weaponry, ranging from tanks and Humvees to artillery and rifles. In essence, the U.S. was now standing up its future enemy in a style to which it was unaccustomed and, unlike the imploded Iraqi military, the forces of the Islamic State proved quite capable of using that weaponry without a foreign trainer or adviser in sight.
In response, the Obama administration dispatched thousands of new advisers and trainers and began shipping in piles of new weaponry to re-equip the Iraqi army. It also filled Iraqi skies with U.S. planes armed with their own munitions to destroy, among other things, some of that captured U.S. weaponry. Then it set to work standing up a smaller version of the Iraqi army. Now, skip nearly a year ahead and on a somewhat lesser scale the whole process has just happened again. Less than two weeks ago, Islamic State militants took Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province. Iraqi army units, including the elite American-trained Golden Division, broke and fled, leaving behind -- you'll undoubtedly be shocked to hear -- yet another huge cache of weaponry and equipment, including tanks, more than 100 Humvees and other vehicles, artillery, and so on.
The Obama administration reacted in a thoroughly novel way: it immediately began shipping in new stocks of weaponry, starting with 1,000 antitank weapons, so that the reconstituted Iraqi military could take out future "massive suicide vehicle bombs" (some of which, assumedly, will be those captured vehicles from Ramadi). Meanwhile, American planes began roaming the skies over that city, trying to destroy some of the equipment IS militants had captured.
Notice anything repetitive in all this -- other than another a bonanza for U.S. weapons makers? Logically, it would prove less expensive for the Obama administration to simply arm the Islamic State directly before sending in the air strikes. In any case, what a microcosm of U.S. imperial hubris and folly in the twenty-first century all this training and equipping of the Iraqi military has proved to be. Start with the post-invasion decision of the Bush administration to totally disband Saddam's army and instantly eject hundreds of thousands of unemployed Sunni military men and a full officer corps into the chaos of the "new" Iraq and you have an instant formula for creating a Sunni resistance movement. Then, add in a little extra "training" at Camp Bucca, a U.S. military prison in Iraq, for key unemployed officers, and -- Voil-! -- you've helped set up the petri dish in which the leadership of the Islamic State movement will grow. Multiply such stunning tactical finesse many times over globally and, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare makes clear today, you have what might be called the folly of the "sole superpower" writ large. Tom
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.
Delusionary Thinking in Washington
The Desperate Plight of a Declining Superpower
By Michael T. Klare
Take a look around the world and it's hard not to conclude that the United States is a superpower in decline. Whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, aspiring powers are flexing their muscles, ignoring Washington's dictates, or actively combating them. Russia refuses to curtail its support for armed separatists in Ukraine; China refuses to abandon its base-building endeavors in the South China Sea; Saudi Arabia refuses to endorse the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal with Iran; the Islamic State movement (ISIS) refuses to capitulate in the face of U.S. airpower. What is a declining superpower supposed to do in the face of such defiance?
This is no small matter. For decades, being a superpower has been the defining characteristic of American identity. The embrace of global supremacy began after World War II when the United States assumed responsibility for resisting Soviet expansionism around the world; it persisted through the Cold War era and only grew after the implosion of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. assumed sole responsibility for combating a whole new array of international threats. As General Colin Powell famously exclaimed in the final days of the Soviet era, "We have to put a shingle outside our door saying, 'Superpower Lives Here,' no matter what the Soviets do, even if they evacuate from Eastern Europe."
Imperial Overstretch Hits Washington
Strategically, in the Cold War years, Washington's power brokers assumed that there would always be two superpowers perpetually battling for world dominance. In the wake of the utterly unexpected Soviet collapse, American strategists began to envision a world of just one, of a "sole superpower" (aka Rome on the Potomac). In line with this new outlook, the administration of George H.W. Bush soon adopted a long-range plan intended to preserve that status indefinitely. Known as the Defense Planning Guidance for Fiscal Years 1994-99, it declared: "Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union."
H.W.'s son, then the governor of Texas, articulated a similar vision of a globally encompassing Pax Americana when campaigning for president in 1999. If elected, he told military cadets at the Citadel in Charleston, his top goal would be "to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity -- given few nations in history -- to extend the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to project America's peaceful influence not just across the world, but across the years."
For Bush, of course, "extending the peace" would turn out to mean invading Iraq and igniting a devastating regional conflagration that only continues to grow and spread to this day. Even after it began, he did not doubt -- nor (despite the reputed wisdom offered by hindsight) does he today -- that this was the price that had to be paid for the U.S. to retain its vaunted status as the world's sole superpower.
The problem, as many mainstream observers now acknowledge, is that such a strategy aimed at perpetuating U.S. global supremacy at all costs was always destined to result in what Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in his classic book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, unforgettably termed "imperial overstretch." As he presciently wrote in that 1987 study, it would arise from a situation in which "the sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is" far larger than the country's power to defend all of them simultaneously."
Indeed, Washington finds itself in exactly that dilemma today. What's curious, however, is just how quickly such overstretch engulfed a country that, barely a decade ago, was being hailed as the planet's first "hyperpower," a status even more exalted than superpower. But that was before George W.'s miscalculation in Iraq and other missteps left the U.S. to face a war-ravaged Middle East with an exhausted military and a depleted treasury. At the same time, major and regional powers like China, India, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been building up their economic and military capabilities and, recognizing the weakness that accompanies imperial overstretch, are beginning to challenge U.S. dominance in many areas of the globe. The Obama administration has been trying, in one fashion or another, to respond in all of those areas -- among them Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the South China Sea -- but without, it turns out, the capacity to prevail in any of them.
Nonetheless, despite a range of setbacks, no one in Washington's power elite -- Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders being the exceptions that prove the rule -- seems to have the slightest urge to abandon the role of sole superpower or even to back off it in any significant way. President Obama, who is clearly all too aware of the country's strategic limitations, has been typical in his unwillingness to retreat from such a supremacist vision. "The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation," he told graduating cadets at West Point in May 2014. "That has been true for the century past and it will be true for the century to come."
How, then, to reconcile the reality of superpower overreach and decline with an unbending commitment to global supremacy?
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