The Empire's Soft Underbelly


Last Wednesday, while the American media focused on President Bush signing into law the Congressional resolution permitting him carte blanche to invade Iraq, a very different scene was playing out a couple hundred miles to the north. At the United Nations General Assembly, country after country -- virtually every member of the U.N. -- rose to condemn the idea that the United States should unilaterally invade Iraq. Many opposed any invasion at all. Even Kuwait -- not only a staunch ally, but the Bush poster country for the virtues of attacking Saddam Hussein -- rose and for the first time publicly announced it would not cooperate with a United States invasion.

The following day, astonishingly, the U.S. backed down. The Bush Administration announced it was abandoning efforts to win a toughly worded resolution that would allow military forces to accompany U.N. weapons inspectors, and that would allow the U.S. to invade should any difficulty arise. While Colin Powell also intoned that the U.S. reserved the right to invade without any U.N. approval at all, it was unclear whether Powell's statements were more U.S. unilateralism or simply a face-saving sop to the hawks in D.C. And two days later, the same Colin Powell suggested that if Iraq disarmed, the Bush Administration would be willing to accept Saddam Hussein's continued rule of Iraq. (Why not? Leaving him in place sure worked for Poppy.)

Whatever the final outcome, it's clear that Bush's rhetorical climbdown last week delays, for the time being, any invasion -- and perhaps even forestalls one altogether. At minimum, it's almost inconceivable now that the U.S. would launch an invasion without some osrt of attempt first by the United Nations to search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- a search Iraq has already repeatedly said it would unconditionally accept. And as another gesture to international opinion, over the weekend Iraq released a number of political prisoners.

Suddenly, the momentum for an unprovoked invasion is gone. Surely high among the many factors is the increasing public reluctance to see the U.S. go it alone, in Iraq or anywhere else, in a naked imperial adventure. But another, much less remarked-upon factor is also at play, one that has many Pentagon generals and military analysts terrified.

The empire might lose.

Wednesday's Kuwaiti announcement at the U.N., and the parade of hostile speeches by other countries surrounding Iraq, highlighted one of the biggest logistical impediments to a U.S. invasion: the lack of any land bases in nearby countries from which soldiers can mass and planes can launch. Kuwait wants nothing of such a role. Despite months of American enticements and begging, neither do Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, or any of the Gulf States. Israel has its own problems.

That leaves the United States vulnerable to a strategy highlighted by yet another news item last Wednesday. (Wednesday was a busy day.) The government of Yemen confirmed that the October 6 explosion that blew a hole and spilled 90,000 barrels of oil from the French oil tanker Limburg was a terrorist attack. More importantly, it confirmed how the attack was carried out: by a small skiff, packed with explosives, that crashed kamikaze-style into the tanker.

A similar method was used in Yemen two years ago in the attack upon the USS Cole. But what ties this all together is the infamous war game exercises conducted several months ago by the U.S. Army. The war games were to recreate an invasion of an unnamed Middle East oil dictatorship -- obviously, a practice for an invasion of Iraq.

Blue -- the good guys -- got destroyed by the Red (unnamed dictatorship) team. The war was over almost before it began. The general leading the Red team was then told he must give away his troops' positions and movements. Same result. He then had radio communications cut off. The Americans still lost, badly. Finally, the Army just called the whole damn thing off and declared Blue the winner.

Red's commander, now retired, has been giving interviews in the European press in recent weeks describing his strategy. It's simplicity itself. The U.S. has no land bases to work with, so any invasion, at this point, will be completely reliant upon aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and especially the Persian Gulf. Red simply used small fishing vessels -- indistinguishable from the civilian boats that dot the region -- and had then repeatedly launch kamikaze attacks on the aircraft carriers. And sank most of them.

That's a particularly ominous exercise since -- as the recent attacks in Bali and Kuwait also suggest -- there are plenty of people outside Iraq, and beyond Al-Qaeda, that would come after Americans should they attack Baghdad. Most will not be part of any nation's recognizable armed forces, and American soldiers will be surrounded, for a thousand or more miles in every direction, by countries that don't want its military forces there. Running an empire can be a lonely thing.

Without land bases, and without a reliable way to defend its aircraft carriers from guerrilla attacks, the United States is at an enormous tactical disadvantage in any invasion of Iraq. That's why the generals have been against this invasion for the last year. And polls repeatedly suggest that domestic support for an invasion would evaporate quickly if there are significant American casualties. That may, more than anything else, be why the Bush Administration is suddenly sounding less bellicose. If the whole point of invading Iraq is to demonstrate to the world the American capacity for bullying, failure would be catastrophic. Even an empire has its limits.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State!

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