Putting One’s Soldiers Where One’s Mouth Is

Guest Commentary

The Australian government wants America to stick around in Iraq.  So do the Turkish and Egyptian governments.  Some Americans obviously agree with them on this particular issue, but there’s a larger point at stake. It’s easy for U.S. allies to be generous with American lives.

Getting the most ink was Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who took the unusual step of attacking Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) by name.  Obama is the only Democratic presidential candidate who voted against the war, and he advocates a withdrawal from Iraq by next March.

Howard responded by criticizing Obama’s position as “not in the security interests of the USA or Australia.”  He claimed that Obama’s stance “will just encourage those who want to completely destabilize and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and a victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory.” Indeed, stated Howard:  “If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul recently visited the U.S. to protest legislation pending before Congress condemning the genocide of Armenians in World War I.  As a sidelight, he noted that “We support President Bush’s new strategy and think it should be given a chance.”  At about the same time, Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, brought “a similar message” to Washington, reports Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland.

It’s very nice of these three allies to offer their opinions about what America should do in Iraq.  After all, they’ve done so much to help the U.S.

Turkey has offered precisely zero soldiers.  Indeed, in 2003 the Turkish parliament refused to allow American forces to invade Iraq from the north.  Moreover, Ankara has threatened to intervene against the Kurds in northern Iraq, which would spark a wider conflict.

Egypt also has done nothing to aid Washington.  Though an ally, this undemocratic state remains a serious problem for the U.S., stoking anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world because of its repressive policies.

To its credit, Australia has provided some troops in Iraq—but not many.  As Sen. Obama archly observed:  “Mr. Howard has deployed 1400 [men], so if he is [ready] to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq.”

Howard defended Australia’s contribution.  Adjusting for population, however, it is about one-seventh the size of America’s garrison.  Moreover, Canberra has no other global and few other regional military commitments.

Washington maintains hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe, Japan, and South Korea; tens of thousands more are afloat in carrier groups and other ships that traverse the globe; smaller units dot the globe, involved in training and other missions.  Many more personnel are based in America, awaiting deployment abroad in an emergency.

The U.S. devotes twice the share of GDP as does Australia to the military.  Roughly 2.5 million Americans serve in the active and reserve forces, in contrast to 71,000 Australians; the U.S. rate of service per population is about 2.5 times as great.  In 2005 Americans spent $1675 per person on the military. Australians spent half as much.

Moreover, Washington is seen by everyone everywhere as the military guarantor of last resort.  If the Iraq war is to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, it is up to America.  If anyone can stop Iran from building nuclear weapons, it will be the U.S.  If diplomacy ultimately fails with North Korea over its nuclear program, Washington will be expected to take the lead.

If Russia resorts to force against one of its neighbors, in the Baltic, Caucasus, or elsewhere, America may find itself at war.  If China acts aggressively against Taiwan, Taipei’s emergency call will go to Washington.  If the Philippines ends up in a scrape with Beijing over the Spratly Islands, Manila will look far away to the U.S.

If Australia finds itself facing military aggression from Indonesia or China–however unlikely prospects such prospects may be–Canberra will press Washington for aid.  Only in this case would Australia likely be involved, standing by America’s side.

Alliances can be useful, but only when partners back up shared interests with manpower, money, and other resources. Advice is cheap.

What should Washington do in Iraq?  There is no good answer. But Prime Minister Howard overlooks the fact that Iraq already has been destabilized and already is sliding towards chaos. Withdrawal is inevitable.  Staying longer will not save Iraq. But it will result in more Americans (and allied soldiers) dying as a result of the Bush administration’s mistaken war.

Australia (as well as Turkey and Egypt) are good friends of the U.S., but the decision over the future of America’s presence in Iraq must be up to Americans, who are doing the bulk of the dying and paying.  And that decision must be for withdrawal.