With a Whimper?

Those who know me often accuse me of being Pollyannaish in my long-range optimism, noting that I still believe, unlike most post-Marxists, that the state will eventually wither away (although I’ve come to accept the likelihood that it just might not happen during my lifetime). So take this with whatever saline dosage seems appropriate.

It would hardly do to predict that the impulse has disappeared or that it won’t resurface soon. But I’m beginning to think that it’s just possible that the current manifestation of American empire-hunger, in its somewhat confused Bushian, neocon, neo-Wilsonian, democracy-obsessed manifestation, has reached something of a high-water mark and is likely to recede, at least for a while.

The dreams of benevolent conquest are being mugged by reality.


The Bushies and their acolytes are hardly likely to admit it – and let’s face it, it is more than likely that Karl Rove’s real dream, of a political system that will elect Republicans – or at least people with a comforting "R" behind their names – into the indefinite (as these things are calculated by political operatives) future could come to pass. Unless another catastrophic attack on U.S. soil occurs, however, the high point of international adventurism could be behind us.

In part this is because almost all recent American presidents have found their power and influence diminishing during their second terms. Usually this happens after the mid-term congressional elections, after which the political class pretty much forgets about the incumbent and focuses on the infinitely more fascinating (to them) question of who will be the next occupant of the Oval Glass House. But Bush seems to have found a way to decrease his relevance almost from the moment he took the oath for the second time.

In part this is because he has done something for which many people laud him, and perhaps with some justification. He has chosen to take the political "capital" he thought he earned with his reelection and spend a good deal of it on trying to change the ultimately dysfunctional Social Security system. This is a large-scale project, and it’s the kind of large-scale project advocates of at least modestly more limited government should like presidents to undertake.

While he has proven that talking about Social Security reform and private investment accounts is not quite the "third rail" of American politics, however, he is discovering that going beyond talking to actually getting the gigantic Ponzi scheme changed is hardly a walk in the park.

Social Security is only part of the problem for the Bushies. There’s the tussle over appointing John Bolton as ambassador to the UN, which isn’t going all that well just now, although he might eventually get the nod. That could be a warm-up – as the discussion of the filibuster-busting "nuclear option" over appointments to the judiciary could be – to a real knock-down-drag-out when it finally comes time (it’s bound to happen in the next three years isn’t it?) over his first Supreme Court nomination.

Add in the ethics questions about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (which might not be all that substantive but are still a political problem) and a renewed unity on the part of congressional Democrats, and some people are questioning whether Bush really got anything resembling a mandate from his reelection in November.


Underlying and overshadowing all this, of course, no matter how bravely the administration people talk, is concern about Iraq, where insurgent attacks have increased in the wake of the appointment of a partial Iraqi cabinet. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may claim in public testimony that U.S. armed forces are "fully capable" of meeting all military goals, so it won’t appear that he’s in conflict with the president, who in his press conference last week said Gen. Myers assured him that the military isn’t feeling "a bit limited."

In his still-not-quite-public report to Congress, however, the good general said that with all the troops and weapons tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s ability to deal with other potential conflicts is somewhat restricted. He claims the U.S. would still win any likely war – which one would hope, given that its military is larger than those of the next dozen or so countries combined – but conflicts would be longer and produce more U.S. casualties. The stockpiles of precision weapons have been depleted somewhat, and the U.S. has been forced to rely much more than we ever thought we would on reserves and even National Guard troops to handle much of the day-to-day requirements of the still-not-quite-defined mission in Iraq.


That hardly makes more credible Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s "blunt warning" to North Korea that the United States "can deter whatever the North Koreans are up to." Furthermore, her protestations about "a very strong alliance with South Korea" sound a bit like whistling in the dark in an environment in which the South Koreans – for decades a virtual U.S. puppet – is increasingly distancing itself from the United States, not only because of disagreement over how to handle North Korea but increasing popular restiveness about U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea more than 50 years after the effective end of the unlamented Korean War.

The administration is hardly likely to emphasize it, but the most serious problem in Korea is that the South Korean capital of Seoul, with a population of around 10 million, is within artillery distance of North Korean long-range military emplacements just north of the ironically named "demilitarized zone." The North Koreans don’t need nukes to wreak havoc on Seoul.

Whether the North would unleash an artillery barrage in response to any U.S. military action is unknown. But the South Koreans hardly look forward to the prospect, and however oblivious they might sometimes be about the consequences of their aggressive actions, U.S. military planners have to have the prospect in the backs of their minds.

Then there’s the little detail that the two other members of President Bush’s fabled "axis of evil" – Iran and North Korea – have learned the lesson the geniuses in Washington didn’t think they would figure out from the invasion of Iraq – mainly that if you don’t want to be invaded by the United states it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a reasonably credible suspicion that you might actually have (or be well on your way to having) a nuclear weapon. It would help if the threat is more credible than assurances from Dick Cheney or George Tenet, of course, but even strong suspicions can be something of a deterrent.


Perhaps the most significant evidence that the imperial enterprise may be hitting something of a doldrums just now, at least when it comes to taking on new conflicts, is the lag in military recruiting. According to news articles, the Army missed its recruiting goals for April, and expects to do so again in May. The proud U.S. Marines, a branch of the service that is usually able to rely on its reputation to keep recruitment levels high, has missed its recruiting targets for four months in a row. The National Guard’s recruitment goals haven’t been met lately.

The growing reluctance to sign up to be part of Uncle Sam’s military minions can perhaps be seen most piquantly in the reserves. As a recent story in the Orange County Register details, there are about 174,662 reservists now on active duty worldwide. Many of them suffer financially from the enforced commitments. Although stateside employers are urged to continue to pay reservists enough to make up the difference between what they earn in their civilian jobs, about a third of reservists lose money when they’re activated, often leading to serious financial hardship for their families.

All the recruiting problems have led to some pressure on recruiters to bend the rules. A New York Times article Tuesday tells of two recruiters in Ohio who signed up a 21-year-old fresh from a three-week psychiatric commitment, even though his parents told them he had bipolar disorder. Senior officers discovered the situation and canceled the enlistment, but another (anonymous) recruiter in Ohio "has been bending the rules for months, he said, hiding police records and medical histories of potential recruits. His commanders have encouraged such deception, he said, because they know their is no other way to meet the Army’s stiff recruitment quotas."

All this points up one of the most significant values of an all-volunteer military. All the arguments against conscription based on the importance of individual liberty and free choice in a free country, about allowing people to make their own choices about their own lives rather than being forced to postpone their lives for two years (or more) to serve the interests of politicians are valid enough. But a further value of an all-volunteer military is that it can serve as a check on the ambitions of would-be imperial masters. When people can vote with their feet, so to speak, not to participate in a given conflict, it serves as a check on the abilities of ambitious world-bestriders to carry out their ambitions with other peoples’ sons and daughters.

As recruitment lags, we inevitably hear calls for a new draft. Instituting one, however, would still be politically difficult, especially since most of the military top brass, having found ways to live with an all-volunteer military since the 1970s, still prefer it to a conscripted military. This is not to discount the possibility that a draft could become more politically feasible in the near future, but for the moment it seems unlikely. This is one more deterrent to more imperial adventures.


None of this is to suggest that our would-be masters don’t still have far-reaching ambitions for further imperial conquests. The most significant potential near-future battleground still remains Iran. It has long been on the neocon "to do" list, it has lately been almost purposely provocative about its nuclear program, which might or might not give it the potential to make nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

There is evidence, or at least allegations, that Americans have already begun special-forces and drone probes of Iran. U.S. officials have been ratcheting up the rhetoric. And in Israel, there’s talk of something called Project Daniel, which urges Israel or the United States to strike "preemptively" at Iran’s nuclear, or suspected nuclear facilities. Project Daniel report authors include the former head of the Israeli Defense Forces general staff and a department head from Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant, so it could be something more than just a think-tank suggestion.

Even advocates, however, recognize that Iran would be even more difficult to do than Iraq, which is why the current talk is of special forces and "pinpoint" strikes rather than an outright invasion. The current round of second thoughts about Iraq just might suggest a certain caution in the United States, however.

None of this implies that the United States is thinking about pulling back from the hundreds of military installations it already operates overseas or reducing its present commitments. It will take a long political and intellectual struggle to convince the American people not just that the Iraq war was something of a blunder but that the whole imperial enterprise is misconceived. But the public opinion climate, built in part on the logistical realities, just might be ripe for such an effort.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).