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The Australian August 04, 2003

Washington's Pax Americana smacks of Roman power game

By Paul Kennedy

The US emphatically denies it has worldwide imperial ambitions, but the global spread of its military commitments suggests otherwise, writes Paul Kennedy

THERE is a cunning after-dinner board game called SPQR which involves the defence of the Roman Empire at its height. The board is a map of Europe and the Mediterranean, showing Roman cities and ports and the military roads and the sea lanes between them. The game involves the "senators and populace" moving selected Roman legions (there were 27 of them in, say, 80AD) along those internal lines in response to new threats, whether they come from Syria, Scotland or the Danube.

There were few places along the borders of the empire where one legion could not reinforce another within 10 days' march -- which was just as well, since Rome's expansion had given it many enemies, and a legion that was based in Sicily one year might find itself in the north of England the next, guarding Hadrian's Wall.

I thought of SPQR while reading Where Are the Legions? Global Deployments of US Forces, published by Global Security, the nonprofit and nonpartisan policy research group based outside Washington (www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/global-deployments.htm). The message is clear, and very disturbing: there may not be many US troops coming home soon, perhaps not for a long time.

Washington now has military forces in about 130 countries, fighting in some of them, peacekeeping and training foreign military units in others. You can hear George Washington turning in his grave.

To be sure, the US has had standing military commitments abroad since the end of the World War II -- the occupations of Germany and Japan, the Korean War and the global rivalry with the Soviet Union made sure of that.

But when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, it was generally assumed things would be different. Alas, that simply is not so. The fight against al-Qa'ida, the war and guerrilla resistance in Iraq, the implosion of Liberia, the continued unrest in Afghanistan, instability on the Korean peninsula and the need to reassure Japan of a strong US presence in the western Pacific have all conspired against a draw-down of US forces in the far corners of the globe. On the contrary, they have very much been drawn up.

Using official statistics, the editors at Global Security report there are 155 combat battalions in the US army. Before October 2001, only 17 of those were deployed on active combat service, in Kosovo and a few other hotspots (garrison deployment in Germany and Japan is not regarded as "active combat" service). Today, that figure stands at 98 combat battalions deployed in active areas.

Even a non-military expert can see this is an impossibly high number to sustain over the longer term, which is why, in addition to the 255,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard forces deployed in combat and peacekeeping missions abroad, the US has sent another 136,000 troops from the National Guard and Reserves.

Most of the US carrier fleet are now back in their bases, being refitted after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, but Washington still has 40,000 sailors afloat and on mission. Meanwhile, the US generals are asking for more troop deployments in Iraq, and the Pentagon has just diverted three warships to the coast of Liberia. The US Defence Department now has to play a real-life game of SPQR.

These are not comfortable facts, and they should surely be giving US congressional representatives cause for thought. It is true the Pentagon is putting immense pressure on any country that counts itself a friend of Washington to send forces to Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia, but the results so far are unspectacular.

Really, the only ground troops with heft and logistical capacity are the British, and, given all their other peacekeeping commitments -- from the Balkans to Sierra Leone -- they are probably more overstretched than the US is. Poland has assumed responsibility for running a relatively quiet (so far) zone in Iraq. But as the Wall Street Journal reported, Washington had to go to 22 countries to drum up the 9000 troops for that zone, and they will rely heavily on US technical support to function at all.

You wonder what utility Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz really accord a battalion of Latvian grenadiers in central Iraq. And what happens when they become the targets of grenade attacks?

Militarily -- and let's forget for a moment the debate about whether the US should have gone into these countries in the first place -- these awkward facts point to two equally awkward conclusions:

First, given the military overstretch, the US needs a few more heavy hitters, along with the British. It needs armies with substantial punch that could send 25,000 troops to southwest Asia. But of the 190 national armies of the world, you can count substantial ones on the fingers of one hand. Israel can't play, China and Taiwan won't play. South Korea is pinned down at home and remains a drain on US troop deployments. Japan is too psychologically and constitutionally restricted. A Pakistani presence alongside the US in Iraq might cause massive internal convulsions. A large Turkish contingent would cause a retaliatory Kurdish uprising.

This leaves India, Russia, France and Germany, and perhaps Italy, but four of those five opposed the war on Iraq in the first place, and if the US needs them now, there will be a price to pay. This is as obvious today as it should have been last September. Of course, the US can always "go it alone", but it does so at some cost.

Second, the US miliary services, and the army in particular, must come up with some long-term rotation scheme. They may have to move to a sort of Cardwell System, which was devised in the late 19th century by the then British secretary for war, Edward Cardwell, to deal with the constant calls on troops to serve abroad. One battalion of the British regiment was rotated out, perhaps to Afghanistan or Mesopotamia, for two or three years, the second battalion stayed home in the regimental barracks, recruiting fresh volunteers until its turn came to go abroad.

The system worked, just as the SPQR system worked, because both combined regular rotation (helping troop morale) and strategic flexibility. Occasionally, there were horrible reverses: for the Romans in the German forests or the British in the Khyber Pass. But the structure was strong enough to allow for recovery, often for further advances. These were empires that were in it for the long haul.

Is this the US future -- to have its troops stationed for an undefined time on the Northwest Frontier or in a disease-ridden port in West Africa or some other outpost?

Washington frantically denies it has imperial ambitions, and I believe those denials to be sincere. But if the US increasingly looks like an empire, walks like an empire and quacks like an empire, perhaps it is becoming one just the same.

Paul Kennedy is a professor of history at Yale University and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers


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