President Bush is preparing to announce new steps in Iraq, almost surely involving some increase in forces, though quite possibly a very small one. He has removed the commanders of CENTCOM (the Middle Eastern theater) and in Iraq itself, Generals Abizaid and Casey, and replaced the former with a Navy Admiral, a very odd decision whose significance is entirely unclear to me as yet. The Democratic leadership, meanwhile, has already called for the start of an American withdrawal. I continue to believe that the President is determined to remain in Iraq for two more years, and only some major military catastrophe could possibly make the Administration reconsider. But I also believe that, whether the war lasts for two more years or not, we have reached the end of the era of the United States as the world's only superpower, and perhaps, unless we can reverse course in 2009, the era of American world leadership. The disparity between our grandiose and unpopular ends and our remaining needs is becoming apparent.
The world's view of the United States still hearks back to the Second World War and its aftermath, and a few figures will illustrate how we reached the position we occupied at least from 1945 until about 1973. The United States, with a population of about 150 million people, mobilized 16 million of them--almost all of them young men--during the Second World War--that is, about 1/5 of the entire male population. 406,000 of them died during the war, 292,000 of those in combat. (This was, in fact, the first American war in which combat took more lives than disease.) That mobilization effort, starting from a base of well under a million troops, was an extraordinary feat that saved democracy within Western Europe and re-established it in Japan, creating a remarkably stable world that is in some ways still with us today. Faced with a worldwide Communist threat--which man observers never felt was as much military as political--the United States, after a brief pause, continued to maintain a very large conscript army for another twenty years or so. During the three-year Korean War, 1.8 million men served in the Korean theatre, out of 5.7 million in the military, and almost 37,000 were killed. 8.7 million people served in the military during the much longer Vietnam era, 3.4 million of them in the theater of operations, and about 59,000 were killed there. Total military strength at the height of the Korean and Vietnam wars was actually about the same--about 3.5 million. That was enough to win a draw in Korea while maintaining other commitments, but it was not enough to win in Vietnam, which had a total population, in those days, comparable to the population of Iraq today--about 20-25 million.
Today the United States has 300 million people--twice as many as in the Second World War and 50% more than in the Vietnam War. (That population increase, by the way, owes a great deal more to immigration than to the birth rate, which is still much lower than in the 1920s or 1950s.) The strength of its armed forces, however, is a little less than 1.4 million men and women--that is, about 40% of what it was during either Korea or Vietnam. The strength of the Army and Marine Corps has fallen to about 33% of what it was then. As a percentage of the population it is about 20% of what is was then. And meanwhile, the population of much of the world--including the Middle East--has been expanding very rapidly as well. As I noted many months ago, Iraq had a population of about 2 million when the British occupied it in 1920-1; it has about ten times that population now. During the five years since September 11, those years of the "long war" and the "generational challenge" that the President keeps talking about, we haven't increased the size of the armed forces at all. And now we are debating whether to leave troop strength in Iraq about about 130,000 or increase it perhaps to 140,000 or 150,000 for a few months by keeping people there longer or sending them a few months earlier--as if such figures could possibly make a difference in the long run. (News reports today suggest that no major Iraqi political force, including the Maliki government, wants this increase.)
In all likelihood, the United States could defeat any conventional military foe quite easily (although should China attack Taiwan, we certainly would not be able to conquer China, merely to defend Taiwan.) But the United States simply does not have the forces to occupy and rule a country the size of either Iraq or Afghanistan (which has much more territory and a larger population.) Someday historians will try to understand how the government of the United States took on such fantastically ambitious projects with such woefully inadequate resources. It is already clear, five years into the war in Afghanistan and four years into the war in Iraq, that we have had essentially no effect on the unfavorable political trends in both of those countries. We should not be surprised; our forces in those countries are large enough to thousands of young men angry but not large enough to control them.
Let me be clear. Having spent much of my adult life studying periods of general war in Europe and elsewhere, I do not in the least regret the end of the era of conscript armies waging massively industrialized warfare. That era cost tens of millions their lives, and its wars, as I have pointed out many times here, had very mixed results. We should regard this as a step forward for civilization, but it also requires us to abandon the fantasy that American military power can determine the political development of the Middle East. As Richard Clarke pointed out in last Sunday's Washington Post, we have essentially wasted the last five years diplomatically because of our focus on a hopeless war. The recent high-level changes within the National Security establishment suggest something more frightening: that no one who has grave doubts about our course can continue to work in this Administration. Apparently we have two more years of the same to look forward to. Clarke made another very welcome point: he referred to "the broader struggle for peaceful coexistence with (and within) Islam" that the United States has to wage. That, not the transformation of an alien culture into a clone of western civilization, should and must be our goal. There have never been many Arab moderates such as President Bush claims to be helping, and thanks to his decisions there are now fewer every day. Militarily, diplomatically, and economically, we must begin living within our means. And once we reach that decision, it will be far less painful than we think.