| The war
that may end the age of superpower
Henry C K Liu
This article appeared in AToL
on April 5, 2003
The United States, like ancient Rome, is beginning to be plagued by the
limits of power. This fact is tactically acknowledged by US Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard B
Myers that the war plan should not be criticized by the press because
it has been framed in a diplomatic and political context, not merely
pure military considerations in a vacuum. They say that it is the best
possible war plan politically, though it may be far from full
utilization of US military potential. America's top soldier has
criticized the uniformed officer corps for expressing dissent that
seriously undermines the war effort. Such criticism is characterized by
Myers as "bearing no resemblance to the truth", counterproductive and
harmful to US troops in the field.
Only time will tell who will have the last laugh. The US Central
Command (Centcom) has announced that the next phase with an additional
120,000 reinforcements will not begin until the end of April. That is
three times the duration of the war so far. In Vietnam, the refrain of
all is going as planned was heard every few weeks with self-comforting
announcements that another 50,000 more troops would finish the job
There is no doubt the US will prevail over Iraq in the long run. It is
merely a question of at what cost in lives, money and time. Thus far, a
lot of pre-war estimates have had to be readjusted and a lot of pre-war
myths about popular support for US "liberation" within Iraq have had to
be re-evaluated. Time is not on America's side, and the cost is not
merely financial. America's superpower status is at stake.
This war highlights once again that military power is but a tool for
achieving political objectives. The pretense of this war was to disarm
Iraq of weapons of massive destruction (WMD), although recent emphasis
has shifted to "liberating" the Iraqi people from an alleged oppressive
regime. At the end of the war, the US still needs to produce
indisputable evidence of Iraqi WMD to justify a war that was not
sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. Overwhelming force
is counterproductive when applied against popular resistance because it
inevitably increases the very resolve of popular resistance it aims to
awe into submission.
To dismiss widespread national resistance against foreign invasion as
the handiwork of coercive units of a repressive regime insults the
intelligence of neutral observers. All military organizations operate
on the doctrine of psychological coercion. No-one will voluntarily
place him/herself in harm's way unless they are more apprehensive of
what would happen were they to do nothing. Only when a nation is
occupied by a foreign power can the theme of liberation by another
foreign power be regarded with credibility. A foreign power liberating
a nation from its nationalist government is a very hard sell. The US
manipulates its reason for invading Iraq like a magician pulling color
scarves out a breast pocket. First it was self defense against
terrorism, then it was to disarm Iraq of WMD, now it invades to
liberate the Iraqi people form their demonic leader. Soon it will be to
bring prosperity to the Iraqi people by taking control of their oil, or
to save them from their tragic fate of belonging to a malignant
There is no point in winning the war to lose the peace. Military power
cannot be used without political constraint, which limits its
indiscriminate application. The objective of war is not merely to kill,
but to impose political control by force. Therein lies the weakest part
of the US war plan to date. The plan lacks a focus of what political
control it aims to establish. The US has not informed the world of its
end game regarding Iraq, beyond the removal of Saddam Hussein. The idea
of a US occupational governor was and is a laughable non-starter.
Guerilla resistance will not end even after the Iraqi government is
toppled and its army destroyed. Drawing upon British experiences in
Malaysia and Rhodesia, the force ratio of army forces to guerilla
forces needed for merely containing guerilla resistance, let alone
defeating a guerilla force, is about 20 to 1. US estimates of the size
of Iraq's guerilla force stands at 100,000 for the time being. This
means the US would need a force of 2 million to contain the situation
even if it already controls the country.
At the current rate of war expenditure at $2.5 billion a day, the war
budget of $75 billion will be exhausted after 30 days, or until April
20, ten days before the projected arrival of all reinforcements to the
front. Nobody has asked how a doubling of forces will win a guerilla
war in Iraq. The US is having difficulty supplying 120,000 troops now,
how will doubling the supply load over a 300 miles supply line help
against an enemy that refuses to engage face to face? Domestic
political opposition in the United Kingdom has started to demand that
Prime Minister Tony Blair should pull British troops out now, based on
the grounds that the US war plan has changed.
The White House is trying to protect Bush by feeding the media video
clips of his old speeches warning against high casualties and a long
war: a grand total of three times in the past six months. Bush aides
are also trying to deflect attention from Vice President Dick Cheney's
excessive optimism, in which he said confidently that the war would be
over in a matter of weeks, not months.
There seems to be a link between the war on Iraq initially going badly
for the US and a lull in terrorist threats in the US, despite
heightened fears of terrorism risks at the start of the war. No
mainstream or anti-war commentators have pointed this out, despite it
seeming to be empirical evidence that terrorism is only a weapon of
The US has overwhelming strategic superiority in the sense that given
enough time, the sheer military and economic power of the US will
prevail. But the problem is that the political objectives of the US do
not lend themselves to unrestrained use of military power. The need of
presenting the US invasion as a liberating force prevents the full
application of both "shock and awe" and US air superiority. "Smart"
bombs are both expensive and ineffective because they need specific
targets. Yet such targets are also ones that the Iraqis expect the US
to hit. These weapon can easily be neutralized with a tactic of
preemptive dispersal. What is the point of firing 40 cruise missiles
costing a total of $1 billion to hit a few empty buildings in one
If the Iraqis manage to hold out past the summer, the war is going to
be a new ball game. The other Arab governments in the region can manage
to stand by if the US scores a quick victory, but Arab governments
would have to come to yield to popular demand to come the aid of Iraq
if the war drags on for months, even if the US makes steady military
progress, but fails to bring the war to a convincing close. Syria and
Iran are at risk of becoming part of the war. The prospect of Russian
intervention is not totally out of the question. Bush already has had
to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin about alleged Russian military
aid to Iraq, which Moscow summarily dismissed.
For the US, it is not a matter of winning the war eventually, it must
win a quick and decisive victory, or its image of superpower
invincibility will suffer. An offensive war must conclude within a
short time, while a defensive war only needs to continue. This is
particularly true with a superpower. Every day that passes without a
decisive victory for the invader is an incremental victory for the
defender. Stalingrad did not need to destroy the German Wehrmacht. It
only needed to hang on without surrendering. Despite orchestrated
denial, the US has failed to deliver on its original war scenario of a
quick and easy win with both military and moral superiority. Claiming
that it had always anticipated a long war now only adds to the
credibility gap on new assurances of the reliability of any new war
Globally, two traditional allies of the US, France and Germany, will
now want to be treated with more equal status with more political
independence. The European Union may even begin to claim the moral high
ground in world affairs over the US, promoting more tolerance for
diversity of cultural values and historical conditions, over the
impositions of US values as a universal standard for the whole world,
for which no non-US citizens will be willing to die to implement. Even
US citizens may only be willing to die to defend the US, but not to
project by force US values all over the world, particularly if this war
should show that even with much sacrifice in the form of American
soldiers' lives, success remains elusive.
The US must bring the war to a successful conclusion within a matter of
weeks, or it will be fighting a defensive war on all fronts. There is
only one thing worse than an empire, and that is an empire that fails
to conquer a small nation.
The "collateral damage" from this war is not limited to Iraqi
civilians. The US economy will also be considered collateral damage -
and by extension global economy as well. The first Gulf War,
notwithstanding its military success due to clear political objectives,
the uncertainty over oil prices further weakened an US economy already
in recession. Despite the Federal Reserve's aggressive cutting of
short-term interest rates, the economic slowdown persisted and cost the
first President George Bush his re-election in 1992.
Today, the Fed again faces the impact of war against Iraq on the global
economy, coupled with what chairman Alan Greenspan calls a "soft patch"
at home. Business confidence may remain low for some reasons not
related to the war, even if the war should end quickly - an unlikely
prospect at best. Unemployment has continued to climb, industrial
production remains stagnant and the economies of Europe and Japan are
slumping even more than that of the US. Much of the Third World, except
China, is gripped by economic and financial distress.
If the war drags on further, or if the economy does not bounce back
when the fighting ends, Fed officials have suggested they are prepared
to pump money into the economy by reducing interest rates even more
than they have done already.
Despite its institutional role as an central bank that is independent
of political influence, the Fed is constitutionally obliged to support
the White House on national security issues that affect the economy.
Thus Greenspan has not made public any anxiety he may have about the
endless costs of war or the risks of disruption to world oil supplies,
in aquiescence of Bush's war plans. Greenspan was reported to have been
at the White House at least three times in the first 10 days of the
war, and he met with Bush on Monday to review the US economic outlook.
The impact of war costs on the federal budget deficit played a part in
Congress' gutting of the proposed Bush tax cut package. Some have even
accused the White House of denying the military adequate troops in Iraq
for fear of its adverse impact of the budget deficit, which would
jeopardize chances of congressional passage of the tax package. Charges
of exposing US soldiers to unnecessary danger merely to protect tax
cuts for the rich have been heard. In the end, Congress cut the Bush
tax cut proposal by half anyway. Former White House chief economist R
Glenn Hubbard argued that the country could afford both the war on Iraq
and the Bush tax cut plan, which had been largely put together by
Hubbard reasoned that the tax cut would add one percent to the US gross
domestic product (GDP) for the next two years and would help to pay for
the war, the expenditure for which is a fraction of the GDP. One
percent of the GDP would be $100 billion. The budget revenue boost from
$100 billion of GDP would be $30 billion a year. The war is costing
$2.5 billion a day at current engagement levels. In the past 11 days,
the war cost is already over $30 billion. Perhaps the Harvard-educated
Hubbard should brush up on his arithmetic.
It is true that the Persian Gulf now accounts for a smaller share of
world oil production than in 1990, and the major industrial economies
have become more efficient in oil consumption than a decade ago. Yet
the global economy now operates in a globalized market so efficient
that its vulnerability comes not from an industrial slowdown caused by
a disruption of oil supply, but from oil price volatility in an
uncertain market. For Japan and Germany, even a slight rise in oil
prices would do great damage to their respective prospects of recovery.
Greenspan's reputation was built mostly on his response to financial
crises. When the stock market crashed on October 19, 1987, two months
after Greenspan became chairman, the Fed lent tens of billions of
dollars to financial institutions and pushed down overnight lending
rates. The moves flooded financial markets with money, which helped
preserve liquidity and restore confidence in the financial system, but
it started the bubble economy of the 1990s.
After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Fed pumped $100 billion
into the monetary system in four days. On September 12 alone, the Fed
lent a handful of key banks $46 billion unconditionally. The Federal
Reserve Bank of New York, which runs the Fed's trading operations,
flooded the banking system with additional billions of dollars by
buying up treasury securities at record volumes throughout the week.
Greenspan's record has been blemished since the stock market bubble
burst in 2000. He was stubbornly late in recognizing the excesses of
the "new economy" in the stock market bubble by hailing it as a
spectacular rise in productivity. Since 2001, the Fed has lowered
interest rates 12 times and reduced its benchmark federal funds rate to
the lowest level in 41 years. When talk of war escalated last year,
raising anxiety levels in business and among investors, the Fed reduced
the federal funds rate in November by an additional one-half percentage
point, to 1.25 percent from 1.75.
Fear of deflation provides the argument is that if oil prices move up,
the Fed could easily reduce interest rates further, without causing
inflation. Yet the ramifications of higher oil prices go beyond
inflationary effects. Higher oil prices distort the economy by
siphoning consumer spending away from non-oil sectors, which at the
moment are holding up much of the economy.
If the war drags on, depressing business confidence further and tilting
the country toward a new recession, the Fed has little room for further
cutting interest rates, since it cannot reduce the federal funds rate
for overnight loans to below zero.
But Greenspan and other Fed officials have recently insisted that even
if the overnight Fed funds rate is lowered to zero, they still have
other tools to stimulate the economy. The Fed can buy longer-term
Treasury securities, such as two-year or five-year or even ten-year
securities. By paying cash for such securities, the Fed would
essentially be pumping money into the economy and pushing long-term
interest rates even lower from the current 4.5 percent to 2.5 percent.
But that would be virgin territory for the Fed, and officials have
acknowledged that the precise impact would be unpredictable.
There are other issues as well. The Fed's easy-money policies have
already stimulated home buying and refinancing, prompting consumers to
convert the appreciated equity in their homes to cash by so-called
cash-out refinancing, to buy big-ticket consumer goods. But this easy
money has done nothing to rejuvenate business spending, which had been
held down by overcapacity and poor earnings, as well as war jitters.
Furthermore, abrupt changes in interest rates, particularly long-term
rates, does violence to structured finance (derivatives) which is
already exceedingly precarious. The Fed may fall into the trap of
setting off an implosions of derivative defaults, what Warren Buffet
has called "financial weapons of mass destruction".
The militant right in the US has committed suicide with the war on
Iraq. It has given itself a fatal dose of poison in an attempt to cure
the Saddam virus.
The link between war expenditure and the Federal budget and the Bush
tax cut is complex. The size of the invasion force was arrived at more
by the constraints of logistics and the new "trasnsformational"
doctrine, championed by Rumsfeld, behind the war plan. The myth upon
which the war plan was based was that there would be instant domestic
rebellion against Hussein, at least in the Shi'ite south - not
concerted Iraqi guerilla resistance. The plan for a two-front,
north-south attack on Baghdad was foiled by Turkey, the support from
whom the US had been overconfident and did not secure with sufficient
bribing. Washington was also unwilling to pay the political price of
accommodating Turkish interests in a post-war Iraq at the expense of
the Kurds. The Rumsfeld war plan was a fast moving, light forward force
to enter Baghdad triumphantly with little resistance after a massive
"shock and awe" air attack and wholesale surrender by the Republican
The plan was flawed from the start, a victim of Washington's own
propaganda of the war being one of liberation for the Iraqi people.
Instead, the invasion acted as a unifying agent for Iraqi and
pan-Arabic nationalism and elevated Saddam to the role of hero and
possibly martyr for the Arab cause in a defensive battle by a weak
nation against the world's sole superpower.
The Democrats can do nothing, for it is their party that cut the Bush
tax cut by half, and with the exception of a few brave voices, the
Democrats went along with the fantasy war plan.
Geographically, without the northern front, Iraq is a big bottle with a
narrow bottleneck in the south and one lone seaport which could be
easily mined. The long supply line of over 300 miles from the port to
Baghdad is along open desert, vulnerable to easy guerilla attacks at
any point. The US war machine requires massive supply of fuel, water,
food and ammunition. The fuel trucks are 60 feet long and cannot be
missed by even an untrained fighter with a long range rifle with an
explosive bullet. As the weather turns hot this month, US troops will
find nature a formidable enemy. If these factors weren't enough to
frustrate US war plans, even Lieutenant General William Wallace has
openly admitted that US troops were not effectively prepared for the
enemy it is now fighting.
Now the war is threatening to spill over to Syria and Iran and is
creating political instability in all Arab regimes in the region. NATO
is weakened and the traditional transatlantic alliance is frayed. This
war has succeeded in pushing Russia, France, Germany and China closer,
in contrast if not in opposition to US interests worldwide, a
significant development with long term implications that are difficult
to assess at present. Globalization is dealt a final blow by this war.
The airlines are dead and without air travel, globalization is merely a
slogan. The freezing of Iraq foreign assets is destroying the image of
the US as a financial safe haven. The revival of Arab nationalism will
change the dynamics in Middle East politics. The myth of US power has
been punctured. The geopolitical costs of this war to the US are
enormous and the benefits are hard to see.
This war will end from its own inevitable evolution, even without
anti-war demonstrations. It will not be a happy end. There is yet no
discernible exit strategy for the US. After this war, the world will
have no superpower, albeit the US will remain strong both economically
and militarily. But the US will be forced to learn to be much more
cautious, and more realistic, about its ability to impose its will on
other nations through the application of force. The UK will be the big
loser geopolitically. The British military has already served notice to
Blair that Britain cannot sustain a high level of combat for indefinite
The invasion of Iraq represents a self-inflicted blow to US
imperialism. Anti-war demonstrations all over the world and within the
US will raise public consciousness on what the war really means, and
for what it really stands. The aim is not to simply stop this war, but
the forces behind all imperialistic wars.
Saddam is not insane, his record of rule is not pretty, but it is
typical of all regimes afflicted with garrison state mentality. That
mentality has been created by a century of Western, and most recently
Americans, even liberals and radical leftists, cannot possibly
sympathize with the natural need for violence in the political struggle
of nationalists in their struggle against imperialism. They harbor a
genuine sense of repugnance for political oppression unfamiliar to
their own historical conditions. Be that as it may, only Iraqis are
justified in trying to rid Iraq of any leader not to their liking, not
a foreign power, no matter how repugnant the regime may seem to
foreigners. Moral imperialism is imperialism nonetheless.
Further, this invasion is transforming Saddam into a heroic fighter in
defense of Iraqi and Arab nationalism and as a brave resistance fighter
against the world's sole superpower. The only people in the entire
world buying the liberation propaganda are Americans, and even many
Americans who supported the idea of regime change in Iraq are
rethinking its need and feasability. The populations in most Arabic
nations are increasingly wishing they had Saddam as their leader.
In a world order of nation-states, it is natural for all citizens to
support their troops, but only on their own soil. Support for all
expeditionary or invading forces is not patriotism. It is imperialism.
All nations are entitled to keep defensive forces, but offensive forces
of all countries must be condemned by all, socialists and right-wing
libertarians alike. Some of the most rational anti-war statements and
arguments in the US at this moment are coming from the libertarian
right, not the left.
The real enemy is neo-liberalism. The war on Iraq is part of a push to
make the world safe for neo-liberalism. This war is a self-destructive
cancer growing inside US neo-imperialism. Just as the Civil War rescued
Abraham Lincoln from the fate of an immoral segregationist politician
and projected him in history as a liberator of slaves, this war will
rescue Saddam from the fate of a petty dictator and project him in
history to the ranks of a true freedom fighter. That has been Bush's
gift to Saddam, paid in full by the blood of the best and bravest of
Iraqi, American and British citizens.