Monday, July 26, 2004

Running On Empty

The Army is running out of bullets, both literally and figuratively. As reported in the Washington Post, the protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the increased use of live ammunition in training exercises, has left the Army in the awkward position of importing small caliber bullets from foreign countries, chief among them Britain and Israel. The use of Israeli munitions in two Muslim countries will, unfortunately, prove to be yet another public relations setback for the United States a region of the world where our popularity is seemingly at its nadir. But that is a topic for another day.

What struck me about the story of the Army running out of bullets is how that really is a metaphor for our current foreign policy options. Nothing has brought this reality home more than the latest
revelations regarding Iran. It has recently come to the public's attention, through the release of the 9/11 Commission's report, that Iran, not Iraq, actually had a close working relationship with al-Qaeda, including their continued refusal to extradite several top al-Qaeda leaders currently in Iran. In addition, Iran provided safe haven and sanctuary to 10 of the 19 hijackers, and possibly worked with al-Qaeda on the Khobar Tower bombings in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans. Iran is also sending intelligence and military operatives into Iraq to arm, fund, indoctrinate and train Shiite militias hostile to the U.S. presence, in particular Al Sadr's Mahdi Army. Iranian troops are also reportedly guarding the most influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani. On top of that, Iran, not Iraq, is actively pursuing nuclear weapons, and has advanced centrifuges needed to enrich weapons grade uranium, and possibly the raw materials needed to take that ominous step.

So here we have a country that has worked with al-Qaeda in the past, still harbors top level al-Qaeda leadership in open defiance of requests for extradition from the United States and Saudi Arabia, is actively working to undermine our efforts in Iraq, and is on the fast track to acquiring the most potent and destructive of WMDs and what is our response? Nothing.

Our Army is overtaxed and stretched thin with overall troop retention and recruitment imperiled. Our military and intelligence apparatuses are bogged down in Iraq, and beholden to the requirements and obligations that the invasion and subsequent reconstruction has demanded. The Army is literally out of bullets. This has diminished our capacity to use the threat of force as a deterrent, especially for nations such as Iran. So in a sense, our foreign policy capacity is out of bullets too.

Iran knows we won't invade. They are aware that we are hamstrung and lack the military manpower to effectively deal with them. This, of course, has only emboldened that regime to further pursue its objectives. It is now more than clear that it is not effective to topple a regime, such as Iran's, if a more vile, threatening, anti-American regime should rise up in its wake because we are not willing or able to successfully reconstruct the country. As we are learning, the reconstruction and and rehabilitation of a country post-regime change requires an enormous commitment of troops, time, money and effort. We simply do not have what it takes to undertake such a Herculean effort in Iran, or any other country at this point.

Considering this grim reality, it can be argued that the invasion of Iraq has made us less safe by removing an invaluable tool for conducting foreign policy, what Teddy Roosevelt called the "big stick." We're not carrying it anymore, and at such a perilous moment in history. The military's sword is lodged in the stone called Iraq. Now all we need is a new leader to extricate it.

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