The common wisdom circulating in
Washington these days is that the United States is
too bogged down in Iraq to consider risky military
action against Iran or - God forbid - North Korea.
Policy analysts describe the US military as
"over-burdened" or "stretched to the limit". The
presumption is that the Pentagon is telling
President George W Bush that it can't really
undertake another major military contingency.
Added to these pessimistic assessments of
US military capacity is the widespread claim that
a "new realism" has taken over in the
reaches, that cautious "realists" like Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice have gained the upper
hand over fire-breathing neo-conservatives. Ergo:
no military strike against Iran or North Korea.
But I'm not buying any of this.
Just as an empire on the rise, like the
United States on the eve of the invasion of Iraq,
is often inclined to take rash and ill-considered
actions, so an empire on the decline, like the
British and French empires after World War II,
will engage in senseless, self-destructive acts.
And I fear the same can happen to the United
States today, as it too slips into decline.
The decline of an empire can be a hard and
painful thing for the affected imperial elites.
Those who are used to commanding subservience and
respect from their subjects and from lesser powers
are often ill-prepared to deal with their
indifference and contempt. Even harder is
overcoming the long-inbred assumption that one's
vassals are inferior - mentally, morally and
The first malady makes the
declining elites extraordinarily sensitive to
perceived slights or insults from their former
subjects; the second often leads elites to
overestimate their own capabilities and to
underestimate those of their former subjects - an
often fatal error. The two misjudgments often
combine to produce an extreme readiness to strike
back when a perceived insult coincides with a
(possibly deceptive) military superiority.
The Suez blunder One of the
most spectacular examples of such miscalculation
in modern times - and an especially illuminating
one - was the Suez Canal crisis of 1956. The
crisis began in July 1956 when Egyptian president
Gamal Abdel Nasser, angry at the West's failure to
support construction of the Aswan High Dam on the
Nile, nationalized the Suez Canal, then owned
principally by a British-French company and long
regarded as a pre-eminent symbol of the British
A reasonable Anglo-French response
to Nasser's move might have been to negotiate a
dignified turnover of the canal (as president
Jimmy Carter did in 1977 with the Panama Canal,
thereby removing a major irritant in US-Latin
America relations). But no: it was beneath their
dignity to negotiate with rabble like Nasser.
Instead, with images of imperial grandeur still
fresh in their minds, the British and French
embarked on October 29, 1956 on an invasion of
Egypt (wisely bringing in the Israelis for a
Then the second malady
kicked in. From what can be reconstructed today,
it never occurred to British and French leaders
that their former subjects would even consider
putting up any resistance to modern European
armies, and so victory would occur swiftly.
Instead, it was pure debacle. The British and
French were far too few on the ground to win any
military victories, and the Egyptians didn't cry
"uncle" at the first sight of the Union Jack.
Desperately, the British and French - who
had first dismissed any need for American help -
pleaded with then-president Dwight D Eisenhower
for American assistance. But Ike wasn't in a mood
to help. Having seen which way the wind was
blowing in the Middle East, he decided it was
better to abandon his North Atlantic Treaty
Organization allies than support the old
imperialists in a battle with pan-Arab nationalism
(which might then choose to align with Moscow).
And so the British and French were forced to
withdraw in utter humiliation.
this extraordinary episode bears on the situation
in Washington today. Once again, a former subject
state - in this case, Iran - is thumbing its nose
at its former imperial overlords - Britain and the
United States (which together put the
megalomaniacal Shah in power there in 1953). Once
again, extreme discomfort and distress has been
the result. Yes, I recognize that Iran's pursuit
of nuclear technology poses a different sort of
danger than Egypt's seizure of the Suez Canal
(though to hear the British tell it, that was no
less of a strategic peril).
nevertheless remains a symbolic aspect to this
whole crisis that cannot be entirely ignored. A
once subservient Third World nation confronts the
Greatest Power the World Has Ever Known on
something approaching equal terms. It is precisely
these sorts of circumstances that are likely to
trigger rash, ill-considered action on the part of
the declining power.
"How dare they stand
up to us in that way?" British and French
officials must have been muttering to themselves
in 1956. And: "We'll teach them a thing or two! -
Just you watch!"
"How dare they stand up
to us in that way?" White House officials must be
saying to one another in private today. And:
"We'll teach them a thing or two! - Just you
Overcoming objections to war
But what about the problem of the
overstretched US military and all those American
soldiers now bogged down in Iraq? This is where
the second post-imperial malady comes in. Yes,
American ground troops are bogged down in Iraq,
but American air and sea power, currently
under-utilized in the Iraq conflict, can be used
to cripple Iranian military capabilities with
minimum demand on US ground forces.
Despite the Israeli inability to
emasculate Hezbollah with airpower during the
Lebanon fighting this summer, American air and
naval officers, I suspect, believe that they can
inflict punishing damage on the Iranians with
airpower alone, and do so without suffering
significant casualties in return. I also suspect
that well-connected neo-conservatives and, no
doubt, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of
Defense Rumsfeld, are whispering this message into
the ear of Bush.
And what about all the
forms of retaliation one might expect from the
Iranians, like an upsurge in Shi'ite disorder in
Iraq and chaos in the oil markets? These and other
likely Iranian responses are also said to be
deterring a US military strike. But the Iranians
will be incapable of such coordinated action after
the US Air Force subjects them to "shock and awe",
and, anyway, there are contingency plans in place
to deal with the fallout. Or so say the neo-cons,
I would imagine.
So I believe that the
common wisdom in Washington regarding military
action against Iran is wrong. Just because
American forces are bogged down in Iraq, and Rice
appears to enjoy a bit more authority these days,
does not mean that "realism" will prevail at the
White House. I suspect that the response of
declining British and French imperial elites when
faced with provocative acts by a former subject
power in 1956 is a far more accurate gauge of what
to expect from the Bush administration today.
The impulse to strike back must be
formidable. Soon, I fear, it will prove
Michael T Klare is a
professor of peace and world-security studies at
Hampshire College, a Foreign Policy In Focus
columnist, and the author of Blood and Oil:
The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing
Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Metropolitan