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Ivan Eland: It's Lonely at the Top

It's Lonely (and Potentially Dangerous) at the Top

By Ivan Eland*
March 23, 2004

All is not well in the empire. From last week’s eruption of violence in the Balkans to hot spots in Afghanistan, Haiti, and Iraq, the Bush administration is rushing to stamp out smoldering conflicts that threaten to ignite into full-scale civil wars. Even with its massive $400+ billion budget for “national defense” (roughly equivalent to the combined defense expenditures of the next 13 highest spending nations), the United States has many more overseas commitments than security dollars to fulfill them and many more conflicts to keep a lid on than forces to do it.

During his presidential campaign, President Bush promised to withdraw U.S. forces from the long-forgotten Balkans (5,000 in Kosovo and 3,000 in Bosnia) but changed his mind after he took office. He may regret reneging on that pledge. During the recent upsurge of Serb-Albanian clashes in Kosovo, the administration rushed additional peacekeeping forces to the province. In fact, the United States remains the ultimate guarantor of peace in Kosovo, a place left in limbo since 1999, when the U.S military separated the mainly Albanian province from Serbia. The same is true in Bosnia, where peacekeepers continue to keep the unfriendly Serb, Croat and Muslim factions at bay, nine years after a foreign occupation that was supposed to be gone in one.

Another “it’s not over, till it’s over” (and it never seems to be over) hot spot is Haiti. The United States reinstated the democratically elected leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the mid-1990s, then decided that other human rights abusers were more compliant with U.S. policy and pressured Aristide to leave. Presently, a meager force of 1,600 Marines is presiding over a volatile nation in which both Aristide supporters and elements of the former security forces remain armed. Using Iraq as inspiration, either group may become emboldened to challenge U.S. military authority if things fail to go their way. Aristide’s claim that he was forced out of power at gunpoint by the U.S. military, whether true or not, fuels anti-U.S. sentiments, while his return to the Caribbean, could escalate Haitian turmoil and lead to civil war.

And the news gets worse. Remember Afghanistan, where the United States still has 11,000 troops? The Taliban is resurgent and violence is escalating among the warlords. Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-installed president is barely mayor of Kabul. This fractious country is another good candidate for internecine conflict.

The most likely civil war, according to many observers, could occur in Iraq, home to the fractious Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. The United States currently has 153,000 troops tied down in what appears to be an endless, deadly quagmire against an unknown enemy. If any of the three ethnic/religious factions start warring with the other, the situation could explode. This at a time when the blowback terrorism of the Iraq War has caused some countries with forces in Iraq to pledge to withdraw their troops (Spain) or grumble that they had been misled about the Iraqi threat (Poland). But any thinning of peacekeeping forces in volatile Iraq is a major setback for a U.S.-led occupation already hanging on by its fingernails. The arrogant U.S. treatment of its allies in Iraq may make American friends reluctant to cooperate in current or future peacekeeping missions. When the Spanish decided that the cost of supporting the U.S. misadventure in Iraq had become too high, instead of thanking Spain for initially going out on a limb to become one of the few U.S. allies to provide troops, the Bush administration accused Spain of appeasing terrorists.

If any of these conflicts erupt in full-blown war, U.S. forces could be strained to the breaking point. If that’s not enough, the Bush administration has continued to take advantage of September 11 attacks to spread its imperial wings even farther. The United States has constructed new military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to contain China from the west and protect Central Asian oil. To guard Persian Gulf oil, new bases have also been constructed in Qatar, Iraq and Djibouti. In addition to being used to project U.S. force to other parts of those regions, the bases imply a commitment to come to the aid of the specific countries. The number of new countries that the United States has pledged to defend will further increase dramatically with the upcoming broad expansion of the NATO alliance. Add those new obligations to the ongoing commitments to defend wealthy allies in East Asia and Europe, each of which require 100,000 forces. More informal military alliances exist with Israel, Taiwan and the many countries that have U.S. Marines or Special Forces helping them battle guerrillas—for example, Georgia, Yemen, Colombia, and the Philippines.

And what does the United States get for providing 350,000 forces overseas to defend the world. Not much. Despite U.S. protection, U.S. allies decline to fully open their markets to American goods and services. In fact, the United States is reluctant to pressure the allies to do so because it fears losing local military bases needed for U.S. forces to defend those countries! Thus, one can only conclude that the U.S. government perversely cares more about retaining a dangerously overextended global empire than it does about the economic prosperity of the American people.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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