Retreat

In Caesar's Ghost, Masters of Command by Barry StraussLeave a Comment

As the year 2011 nears its end, I called on Caesar’s Ghost to look back – and look ahead. I asked the dictator his main impression of the year.

As a general, I could not help but hear the profound blast of the trumpet sounding the retreat. The Americans have pulled back in the Middle East. Once there were 170,000 US troops in Iraq. Now there are 150.

No one could accuse the Americans of slowness. But we might charge them with inconsistency.

Compare their behavior elsewhere. Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, the Americans still have 50,000 troops in Germany, 35,000 in Japan, 10,000 in Italy, and 9,000 in the UK. Nearly 60 years after the end of the Korean War, they have 28,000 troops in South Korea.

Those garrisons are not a surprise – not to a Roman. Rome planted colonies throughout Italy, colonies bristling with soldiers. As Cicero said, they were propugnacula imperii – the ramparts of empire. What happens when you tear down the ramparts?  Why, the enemy advances, of course.

I notice, Caesar, that you carefully restrict Roman military colonies to Italy. In the empire, Rome’s colonies were largely civilian, not military. In fact, Rome governed the empire with relatively few soldiers.

Very good; you could joust with one of our orators in the Forum. Rome husbanded its military resources carefully, in part to save money, and in part to prevent men like me from marching on the capital. In truth, Rome didn’t need troops in most of its provinces. They had been pacified through a combination of brutality and friendship. But Rome never spared troops where they were needed, on dangerous borders. No Roman would ever have hurried out of Iraq as the Americans have.

Not true. A Roman, as you say, would deploy resources where they are most needed. Today, the most dangerous front facing America is economic. Iraq was a sideshow, and one the US could ill afford. The money saved by standing down there can be plowed back into economic growth at home.

Economic growth requires peace. As the Americans withdraw from the Middle East, they give their enemies breathing space. Iran and Al-Qaeda, for example, can plot new terror attacks on the US homeland. Would another 9-11 help the American economy?

Our drone and other attacks in Pakistan have pretty much taken care of Al-Qaeda and its friends, haven’t they?

Those attacks have indeed hurt America’s enemies but they are insufficient. Those enemies are regrouping, perhaps in North Africa. And an Al-Qaeda affiliate takes credit for last week’s bombing wave in Baghdad.

Besides, withdrawal of troops from Iraq was only the most dramatic of America’s retreats this past year. There was the decision against playing a major role on the ground in Libya. There is the non-intervention in Syria. There was the decision not to support Mubarak in Egypt. New regimes are forming in Egypt and Libya and it is not entirely clear that they will be America’s friends. Why should they be, when they know America lacks staying power? In the distance, incidentally, there is the cutback in US forces in Afghanistan: today 90,000, down from a high of 100,000, with 23,000 more to leave during 2012.

And then, there is the American decision to accept tacitly the Iranian nuclear bomb. If it has made that decision, that is. An American military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites still seems to me to be possible.

Really? Under the current administration?

This President would certainly not relish such an attack but he might decide on it anyhow. He is more flexible than he gets credit for. And he certainly knows what is popular.

The American public has no stomach for protracted war in the Middle East. Sentiment for troop pullback is not limited to the left. Look at the support for Ron Paul in the Republican electorate.

But a limited strike is not protracted war. Nuclear weapons in the hands of the mullahs will frighten many Americans. And a major American success in stopping nuclear proliferation will be quite a feather in the president’s cap.

But won’t the Iranians launch a major war in retaliation?

They won’t be able to. They don’t have enough power to shut off the world’s oil supply. They won’t launch missiles at southern Europe in fear of retaliation. They would find it more dangerous to launch a terror attack on the US when all eyes will be on them than they would when America’s guard is down.

If your president is wise and wants to assure his power, he will act audaciously and without fear.

You certainly are bold and sure of yourself!

“The die is cast,” as someone once said.

So help me, I thought I saw Caesar smile.

Barry StraussRetreat

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