This article about the highly qualified progress made against Colombian drug traffickers and guerrillas (who are often the same people), despite years of effort and billions of dollars of military aid, quickly made the rounds of the blogs. (Thanks to Steve Taylor at Poliblogger for the original link.) Based on the reactions of fellow bloggers, the Colombian story isn't alarming because the US government failed to choke off the Colombian narcotics pipeline, which has been a national priority ever since Nancy Reagan urged us to say no to drugs. Instead, this news fits a larger, more disturbing pattern: because of the Iraq war, the United States is not able to address other threats. Ultimately, not just the theater strategy of the United States in Latin America and elsewhere is at risk. The entire US grand strategy is at stake.
If you're not convinced, think of the other national security issues that the Bush Administration has been powerless to address, except through characteristic bluster and reluctant diplomacy:
- The Iranian nuclear program.
- The North Korean conventional and unconventional military threat to South Korea.
- The mutation of Al Qaeda into a looser structure (sometimes likened to a franchise, other times to an open source movement), capable of supporting more terrorist operations across a wider range of global targets.
- The vastly expanded global support for Islamist terrorist and guerrilla groups. (In other words, the jihadists aren't just going to Iraq, though it may be the biggest opportunity to kill Americans.)
- The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
- The constant flow of narcotics into the United States.
- The increase of opium production and export from Afghanistan.
- The increasing indebtedness of the United States to the People's Republic of China, which is currently increasing its military capabilities in key areas that give China more influence over world affairs.
- Potential political instability in both Russia and Pakistan, two countries with nuclear weapons and raw feelings of national grievance.
- The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which may be on the brink of a civil war between Hamas and other Palestinian factions. The Occupied Territories remain the single biggest grievance in the Arab and Muslim worlds against the West in general and the United States in particular, which has been bench-sitting through the last five years of conflict (or giving the Israelis more latitude than is warranted).
- The well-entrenched leader of Venezuela, the largest oil exporter in Latin America, is clearly working against US interests in the Western Hemisphere and the world oil market.
- Magical technological gains have yet to dispel American dependence on imported oil, at a time when (1) the Saudis have reached peak production, and (2) the US is competing with the growing economies of India and Japan for oil.
- If the avian flu turns out to be a real threat, and not a made-for-TV piece of hysteria, the United States faces the worst pandemic since the WWI-era influenza epidemic.
- The war in Darfur continues with murderous intensity, threatening to inspire other inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian conflicts in Africa.
No doubt I've forgotten a few key items. However, even with an incomplete list, every bullet point strikes the same disquieting chord: the United States is not on top of these situations.
Unipolarity is not omnipotence. It's not even necessarily hegemony, if the single superpower commits serious mistakes. Imperial Rome, the unipolar superpower of its era, faced a similar crisis when it lost three legions in the Teutoburg Forest. The first emperor, Augustus, had crafted a delicately balanced system of frontier defense that depended on having just enough military strength to keep Rome's enemies at bay, and not so many legions in reserve that they might fall under the sway of ambitious Roman politicians, leading to a repeat of Rome's catastrophic civil wars. The massacre in Teutoburg Forest strained Augustus' "just enough" grand strategy to the breaking point, particularly on the German frontier.
Augustus responded quickly, adjusting deployments and rebuilding the lost legions. However, it proved not to be enough. Teutoburg Forest was the 9/11 of first century Rome, a shocking disaster that Romans burned to avenge. While they finally did recover the lost legionary standards, Roman grand strategy grew more expansionist. Defending the frontier was not enough; crossing the frontier to pre-empt threats from the Germans, Gauls, and Parthians became the objective.
While Rome did expand its borders, Augustus failed to prevent another outbreak of civil war. Beyond the acutely troubled period of the "barracks room emperors," Rome through the rest of its history often settled imperial succession through the clash of legions. While Augustus was no Republican, his lighter touch as emperor—often depending on persuasion over edict, maintaining many of the outward forms of the old Republic—gave way to the autocratic methods of his successors. The military backgrounds of future emperors, and the military clashes that "elected" them to imperial office, accelerated the drive towards autocracy.
In the end, Rome survived the threat to its foreign policy, but its domestic policies—the preservation of some vestiges of the Republic, and the prevention of civil war—failed. Today, we stand to lose both our foreign and domestic policy goals. Not only is the Bush Administration ignoring the slow-motion Teutoborg-like disaster that is crippling the US Army, but it is also far too willing to sacrifice legal and Constitutional principles in the name of national security. At least Augustus and his successors secured the frontiers.