Posted on 09-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Just how big a military is threat is Iran? Recent columns by Juan Cole raise this pertinent question as usual parties beat the war drums. With a military budget estimated around 7.4 billion dollars, the Iranian military is dwarfed by Israeli military expenditures of over 13-19 billion dollars. The American military budget is over 500 billion dollars.

Even the military budget of China which was projected as the next great military threat in the 1990s by the Cox report has a budget nine times smaller than the United States (at the official exchange rate). The current United States military budget is larger than the next 13 countries combined. With this in time it is time to give some perspective on the nature of the military threat the United States faces.  For a comparison chart of military budgets go here.

Commensurate with its expenditures, the United States does have global military obligations and some other powers like China and India have only regional aspirations. America’s actions as the gendarme of the world unfortunately have been encouraged by the post-cold war freeloading by the European NATO allies who showed themselves singularly incapable if handling their own backyard brawl in Yugoslavia and the Kosovo. The rest of the world (except for occasional French intervention in its former colonies and recent Nigerian assertiveness in West Africa) has failed to intervene in various African tragedies unless the United States took the lead.

The reality is that the United States has not been threatened conventionally by any power since the fall of the Soviet Union. This makes the overblown hype about the nature of the opposition in every war the America fought since 1990 more disturbing, particularly when the opponents have been repeatedly shown to have feet of clay.

Saddam Hussein’s million man army was useless against superior American firepower. The vaunted Yugoslav military folded once Clinton sent in ground troops. The build up to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq after 9/11 was even more egregious because Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities had atrophied after Desert Storm.

At this point no conventional opponent comes close to challenging the United States.

However, American military power does have an Achilles heel.  It is  in post war pacification. The United States military is not trained for peacekeeping and simply does not commit enough troops on the ground to secure the peace. This is where a true coalition of the willing rather than the ridiculous coalition of the billing assembled for Iraq comes handy.

In Bosnia and Kosovo, the Europeans were aware of the risk to their own backyard and provided peace-keepers. The fact that these peace-keepers were not monitoring a hot conflict helped. The Afghan war was conducted with the moral outrage of 9/11. NATO stepped up. But then the United States diverted troops to Iraq, squandered global goodwill and failed to attract any meaningful support other than from the British (who have not had an independent foreign policy since the Suez fiasco).

Any aggressive attack by Iran carries with it the threat of retaliatory annihilation. For all the ravings by the armchair hawks and their ilk the Iranian dictatorship is aware of that. This is why it lets its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza bleed Israel instead of intervening directly. A war of choice in Iran would likely inflame the Shiite regions of Iraq, draw even less global support than the war in Iraq and drag America into another bloody occupation of a sullen populace.

It is easy to make jokes about “old Europe”. But even with American military power at unsurpassed levels it still needs the soft power of diplomacy to protect it from the military overstretch it faces today.

Exaggerating the threats or actions of third rate military powers is old hat in American history. James Polk stretched the truth about Mexico shedding American blood on American soil to launch the Mexican War. William Randolph Hearst and his fellow yellow journalists used the suspicious sinking of the USS Maine to launch a war against a decrepit Spain. But times have changed. Colonialism is passé.

While the United States must and should have the right to defend itself from genuine threats, wars of choice, particularly those outside the Americas, require a genuine coalition to secure the peace. It is something the people beating the war drums for a new war of choice against a country that does not present a direct military threat should consider.

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