Supremacy by Stealth

It is a cliché these days to observe that the United States now possesses a global empire—different from Britain's and Rome's but an empire nonetheless. It is time to move beyond a statement of the obvious. Our recent effort in Iraq, with its large-scale mobilization of troops and immense concentration of risk, is not indicative of how we will want to act in the future. So how should we operate on a tactical level to manage an unruly world? What are the rules and what are the tools?
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In the late winter of 2003, as the United States was dispatching tens of thousands of soldiers to the Middle East for an invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command was deployed in sixty-five countries. In Nepal the Special Forces were training government troops to hunt down the Maoist rebels who were terrorizing that nation. In the Philippines they were scheduled to increase in number for the fight against the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas. There was also Colombia—the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, and the third most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. Jungly, disease-ridden, and chillingly violent, Colombia is the possessor of untapped oil reserves and is crucially important to American interests.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Hard Edge of American Values" (June 18, 2003)
Robert D. Kaplan on how the United States projects power around the world—and why it must.

The totalitarian regimes in Iraq and North Korea, and the gargantuan difficulty of displacing them, may have been grabbing headlines of late, but the future of military conflict—and therefore of America's global responsibilities over the coming decades—may best be gauged in Colombia, where guerrilla groups, both left-wing and right-wing, have downplayed ideology in favor of decentralized baronies and franchises built on terrorism, narcotrafficking, kidnapping, counterfeiting, and the siphoning of oil-pipeline revenues from local governments. FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), for example, is Karl Marx at the top and Adam Smith all the way down the command chain. Guerrilla warfare is now all about business, and physical cruelty knows no limits. It extends to torture (fish hooks to tear up the genitals), gang rape, and the murder of children whose parents do not cooperate with the insurgents. The Colombian rebels take in hundreds of millions of dollars annually from cocaine-related profits alone, and have documented links to the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatists (who have apparently advised them on kidnapping and car-bomb tactics). If left unmolested, they will likely establish strategic links with al Qaeda.

Arauca province, a petroleum-rich area in northeastern Colombia, near the Venezuelan border, is a pool-table-flat lesion of broadleaf thickets, scrap-iron settlements, and gravy-brown rivers. The journey from the airfield to the Colombian army base, where a few dozen Green Berets and civil-affairs officers and their support staff are bunkered behind sandbags and concertina wire, is only several hundred yards. Yet U.S. personnel make the journey in full kit, inside armored cars and Humvees with mounted MK-19 40mm grenade launchers. As I stepped off the tarmac in late February, two Colombian soldiers, badly wounded by a car bomb set off by left-wing narcoterrorists (the bomb had been coated with human feces in hopes of causing infection), were being carried on stretchers to the base infirmary, where a Special Forces medic was waiting to treat them. The day before, the Colombian police had managed to deactivate two other bombs in Arauca. The day before that there had been an assassination attempt on a local politician. And the day before that an electricity tower had been bombed, knocking out power in the region. Previous days had brought the usual roadside kidnappings, street-corner bicycle bombings, grenade strikes on police stations, and mortar attacks on Colombian soldiers—using propane cylinders packed with nails, broken glass, and feces.

As we drove through Arauca's mangy streets in a Special Forces convoy, every car and bicycle seemed potentially deadly. Yet the U.S. troops there are defiant, if frustrated. The U.S. government permits them only to train, rather than fight alongside, their Colombian counterparts, but they want the rules of engagement loosened. After a truck unexpectedly pulled out into the street, slowing our convoy and causing us to scan rooftops and parked vehicles (and causing me to sweat more than usual in the humid and fetid atmosphere), a Green Beret with experience on several continents leaned over and said, "If five firemen get killed fighting a fire, what do you do? Let the building burn? I wish people in Washington would totally get Vietnam out of their system."

Back at the base, Major Mike Oliver and Captain Carl Brosky, civil-affairs specialists who between them have served in the Balkans, Africa, and several Latin American countries, were spending the day chasing down two containers of equipment for Arauca's schools and hospital that had been held up in customs at the Venezuelan border. A week earlier, at Tolomeida, several hundred miles south, I had watched Sergeant Ivan Castro, a Puerto Rican from Hoboken, New Jersey, as he patiently taught Colombian soldiers how to sit in a 360-degree "cigar formation" while on reconnaissance, in order to rest in the field without being surprised by the enemy. Later he taught them how to peel back in retreat, without a gap in fire, after making first contact with the enemy. Castro worked twelve hours in the heat that day, speaking in a steady, nurturing tone, working with each soldier until the whole unit performed the drills perfectly.

Even as America's leaders deny that the United States has true imperial intentions, Colombia—still so remote from public consciousness—illustrates the imperial reality of America's global situation. Colombia is only one of the far-flung places in which we have an active military presence. The historian Erich S. Gruen has observed that Rome's expansion throughout the Mediterranean littoral may well have been motivated not by an appetite for conquest per se but because it was thought necessary for the security of the core homeland. The same is true for the United States worldwide, in an age of collapsed distances. This American imperium is without colonies, designed for a jet-and-information age in which mass movements of people and capital dilute the traditional meaning of sovereignty. Although we don't establish ourselves permanently on the ground in many locations, as the British did, reliance on our military equipment and the training and maintenance that go along with it (for which the international arms bazaar is no substitute) helps to bind regimes to us nonetheless. Rather than the mass conscription army that fought World War II, we now have professional armed forces, which enjoy the soldiering life for its own sake: a defining attribute of an imperial military, as the historian Byron Farwell noted in Mr. Kipling's Army (1981).

The Pentagon divides the earth into five theaters. For example, at the intersection of 5° latitude and 68° longitude, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command) gives way to PACOM (the Pacific Command). At the Turkish-Iranian border it gives way to EUCOM (the European Command). By the 1990s the U.S. Air Force had a presence of some sort on six of the world's continents. Long before 9/11 the Special Forces were conducting thousands of operations a year in a total of nearly 170 countries, with an average of nine "quiet professionals" (as the Army calls them) on each mission. Since 9/11 the United States and its personnel have burrowed deep into foreign intelligence agencies, armies, and police units across the globe.

Precisely because they foment dynamic change, liberal empires—like those of Venice, Great Britain, and the United States—create the conditions for their own demise. Thus they must be especially devious. The very spread of the democracy for which we struggle weakens our grip on many heretofore docile governments: behold the stubborn refusal by Turkey and Mexico to go along with U.S. policy on Iraq. Consequently, if we are to get our way, and at the same time to promote our democratic principles, we will have to operate nimbly, in the shadows and behind closed doors, using means far less obvious than the august array of power displayed in the air and ground war against Iraq. "Don't bluster, don't threaten, but quietly and severely punish bad behavior," says Eliot Cohen, a military historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington. "It's the way the Romans acted." Not just the Romans, of course: "Speak softly and carry a big stick" was Theodore Roosevelt's way of putting it.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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