COVER STORY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The limitations of American power
, May 4, 2002
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has been the only nation capable of exercising global military power. The US continues to exercise a stabilising influence over a number of potential flash-points around the world, including the Taiwan Straits, the Persian Gulf and in parts of South America.
US military power - built on the huge American economy, a vast military budget and bases throughout the world - has prevented a number of crises escalating out of hand.
The US-led coalition evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, some six months after the Iraqi dictator had attacked and over-run his oil-rich neighbour.
Ten years later, the United States met the challenge of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, which was behind the bombings of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon last September, by overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan which had sponsored it.
The "war on terrorism", as President Bush declared it, continues as an international effort to destroy Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network which has military cells through much of the developing world.
More recently, President Bush denounced an "axis of evil", including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, three disparate states which have supported terrorist organisations in different parts of the world. There have been continued suggestions that Washington is considering a military strike on Iraq.
However, it would be a serious mistake to believe that pax Americana
is either universal or very effective. Saddam Hussein continues to rule Iraq without challenge, despite limitations on the country’s oil exports, which are backed by a military embargo.
The United States was unwilling to intervene in the East Timor crisis in 1999, although after Australia took the lead in establishing a UN intervention force, the US pressured the Indonesian government to permit it to land.
Since 1990, international mediators have failed to bring about a resolution of the dispute between India and Pakistan over the Indian state of predominantly Muslim Kashmir. As both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, the dispute threatens nuclear war on the Indian sub-continent.
But perhaps the greatest limitation on American power is seen in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The breakdown in negotiations between the two parties since Ariel Sharon became Israeli Prime Minister in March last year has been accompanied by a gradual increase in acts of violence by Palestinian extremists, apparently with the knowledge and approval of the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat.
This culminated in the spate of suicide bombings which killed hundreds of Israelis, in turn leading to the massive Israeli reprisals which killed hundreds of Palestinians, defeating the best efforts of US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the UN and the European Union to bring about a ceasefire.
An Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian areas is unlikely to end the violence, yet continued Israeli occupation of these areas seems unthinkable.
The difficulty for the Americans is that they are now captive to their own rhetoric about the "war on terrorism".
After terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, India demanded American support for their attacks on terrorist bases in Pakistan. And Israel responded to Palestinian suicide bombings saying that they were engaged in President Bush’s war on terrorism.
In the meantime, the war in Afghanistan has changed since the Taliban were ousted. Afghanistan’s 28 million people seem certain to return to the pre-Taliban situation in which the country is effectively run by rival warlords, based on the rival ethnic, linguistic and religious affiliations.
A few thousand American and other troops cannot create a Western-style democracy in this situation.
Recent hit-and-run attacks on Americans and other Western nationals in Afghanistan, and the attempted assassination of public figures, including the recently-returned former King of Afghanistan, highlight the real limitations on outside military intervention - a lesson the Soviet Union learned during its futile 10 year occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Having defeated the Taliban, the Western allies would be well advised to pull out of Afghanistan, as quickly as they safely can.
In relation to Iraq, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein is a particularly vicious dictator. Not only did he provoke a terrible eight year war with Iran and then invade Kuwait, but he murdered two of his sons-in-law who were persuaded to return to Iraq after defecting to Jordan.
He may be developing weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons. But many of Washington’s allies against Osama bin Laden - including Russia, China and the European Union - reject an attack on Iraq.
For the time being, the best solution to this problem is international isolation, through a tightening of the oil embargo and enforcement of the no-fly zones over southern and northern Iraq.
All this suggests that American rhetoric of a "war on terrorism" and the "axis of evil" no longer reflect contemporary realities, and should be abandoned.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council