U.S. must not back down as world’s superpower

September 28th, 2003

Since summer, the United States has found itself in a predicament.

In spring, the future of the United States looked rosy, following the overthrow of the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the agreement of Israelis and Palestinians–headed by then Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas–to the “road map” peace plan, which was to have helped establish the coexistence of an independent Palestinian state and Israel. A string of terrorist attacks since the beginning of last month, however, has cast dark clouds over the world situation.

The situation in Iraq is, nonetheless, better than it looks. No serious conflicts between ethnic or religious groups have taken place in the country, despite fears to the contrary before the Iraq war. In addition, there has been no resistance by Iraqis to the goal itself of turning the country into a democracy.

There nevertheless have been vague ill feelings stemming from Arab nationalism against non-Muslim occupiers, while there have been sporadic terrorist attacks and acts of sabotage by leftovers of Al-Qaida and former Baath Party members still loyal to Saddam. This state of affairs would surely subside with the restoration of public order in Iraq, so it is still likely that the country will become a democracy.

No U.S. retreat from Mideast

The reality in the occupied Palestinian territories, however, is much different. Although the U.S.-led peace process is supposed to still be alive, the mutual confidence, indispensable for its execution, between the Israeli and Palestinian sides has deteriorated to the worst-ever level of the spring of 2002.

Some may suggest, under such circumstances, the United States should give up addressing the Palestinian problem, which has been unresolved for the past 60 years, in order to concentrate on resolving the problems in Iraq.

Doing this would mean the United States would be giving up the high ideal, declared on the eve of the Iraq war by U.S. President George W. Bush, of liberating the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam, bringing about peace in the occupied Palestinian territories and spreading freedom and reforms throughout the Middle East.

One could say such an ideal, when faced with reality, must be modified in one way or another. But this line of thinking will not do under the current circumstances. Should the United States suffer a loss of prestige due to its failure to solve the Palestinian problem, and as a result, should anti-U.S. nationalist Arab sentiment prevail in Iraq and other Arab states, difficulties the United States is facing in its occupation of Iraq would certainly increase. The problems in Iraq are inseparably linked with those of the occupied Palestinian territories.

The United States has gone too far to retreat from the Middle East problem. If it retreats, it would face problems worse than those it faced after pulling out from Vietnam.

The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam came in the midst of the Cold War, so other Western countries continued to be united under the leadership of the United States. If the United States gives up on the Middle East problem, the international community will be broken into pieces.

The Middle East would be turned into an arena in which no one would act responsibly and a fifth Middle East war would be possible if the current policy adopted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is left as it is.

The loss of U.S. prestige as the leading nation of the world would damage the nuclear nonproliferation framework, meaning North Korea and Iran would go nuclear if they have not already, menacing their neighbors. In Western Europe, Russia and Japan, irresponsible anti-Americanism would be rampant, and terrorist activities would be free・wheeling in various parts of the world.

Taking these thoughts into account, the United States has no option but to remain in the Middle East.

Some conventional wisdom could castigate the United States for going as far as it has, and the United States could be criticized for having waged the Iraq war without sufficient backing from the international community. One could also make a policy recommendation that Washington should from now on make efforts to gain this support.

A review of the efforts made by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for example, in achieving U.N. Resolution 1441 prior to the Iraq war, however, makes us wonder if there was any room for the United States to do more than it did. Furthermore, if more countries collaborate with the United States in the future, they would make no real difference, as the United States has to continue to play the main role in the Middle East peace process.

‘Desperate ground’

Even if the criticism mentioned above were justified–according to some American intellectuals–it would be tantamount to saying “I told you so” and extending no help to a stranded mountaineer who tried to scale a peak after disregarding warnings. The life of the mountaineer must be saved at all costs.

The term “deesperate ground” appears in the 11th chapter of the classic work of Sun Tzu’s “the Art of War,” written in China more than 2,300 years ago.

When an army has nowhere else to go, it is on desperate ground, and must immediately fight with all its might to avoid defeat.

Considering that the preceding 10 chapters of “The Art of War” are about achieving victory without fighting, the act of entering a situation where one is on desperate ground must have been considered by Sun Tzu as most ill-conceived.

But the depth of Sun Tzu’s thought does not equate desperate ground with a situation in which an army is bound to perish. The book instead points out that a general, by making his army realize it cannot survive unless it fights to the death, can still prevail. In the 11th chapter, the proverb “goetsu doshu” is mentioned. It stems from a hypothetical situation in ancient China in which people of the rival states of Wu and Yue–respectively pronounced “go” and “etsu” in Japanese–would have been forced to cooperate if a boat they were both in were in danger of sinking.

According to a passage in that chapter, “A capable general unites his troops by convincing them that they had no other option than to fight.” Many U.S. intellectuals are well aware of such a strategy, some of them referring to the U.S. mission in Iraq as that of a “must-win.・

This is the same as the point of no return・reached by the United States, which I referred to in this column in June.

Following a spate of major terrorist attacks and worldwide reverberations stemming from them, Bush, in a telecast speech on Sept. 7, vowed never to give in to terrorism, demanding that Congress agree to an additional budgetary appropriation of about $87 billion to help rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, a figure considerably larger than expected. It seemed Bush thought it better to be honest with the public rather than leaving them wondering how much would be needed.

Beware of U.S. public opinion

There have so far been no objections to Bush’s budget request, except for some non-essential reservations. In this connection, the Republican Party should do away with its inept tax-cutting policy and the United States should seek more assistance from the international community.

Of key importance is how long U.S. public opinion will back Bush’s approach.

There have so far been no calls for the United States to leave Iraq. There was no single voice suggesting the retreat even after the number of U.S. military fatalities in Iraq after the Iraq war surpassed that during the war.

This is mainly because the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States convinced Americans that it was necessary to fight terrorism, and most people in the United States back Bush’s claim that the war is about the U.S. sense of values centering around freedom and democracy.

As U.S. public opinion may change in the future, the international community should be vigilant enough to perceive signs of such changes. In the 20th century, the world failed more than once to pay attention to shifts in U.S. public opinion, which has acted as a de facto world dictator in the past century. The world today has learned its lesson and will not repeat such mistakes.

As long as U.S. public opinion remains unchanged, the U.S. government will eventually prevail in the Middle East. The situation is similar to that of a rich man and a poor man gambling. If they play until the end, the rich man is bound to win as he has superior resources. And if the United States is successful in Iraq against its lesser-funded opposition, this success will be conducive to settling Palestinian problems.

What kind of country will the United States be from now on in terms of government finances?

Bush’s proposal for $87 billion in additional spending would boost the U.S. defense budget to about 4 percent of its gross domestic product.

When the U.S. defense budget topped 6 percent of GDP in the closing days of the Cold War, Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” said this ratio was dangerously high.

At the beginning of the 21st century, when the ratio of the defense budget to GDP stood at about 3 percent, Kennedy said this low price to pay for maintaining the U.S. world empire was astonishing.

The 4 percent figure, halfway between the two extremes, and the U.S. federal budget and trade deficits will likely continue for at least two to three years.

2 keys to Japanese interests

The spending, though still moderate compared with the Cold War period, will financially and psychologically burden the United States, a situation to which Japan should pay attention.

A successful United States is definitely better for the Japanese national interest than a failing United States.

In this connection, Japan should understand that the United States, our only ally, must still go through a difficult phase before it is to be successful.

If these points are taken into account, the steps Japan should take to cooperate with the United States, which include sending Self-Defense Forces personnel to Iraq and making financial contributions to Iraq’s reconstruction, are obvious.

In addition, no more time should be wasted discussing Japan’s right to collective self-defense. The current pattern of sending SDF personnel abroad, which is of symbolic significance, but has too many constraints to be meaningful, should therefore be changed to create a relationship between Japan and the United States in which Tokyo could become a reliable ally and respectable friend of Washington. This country should never overlook this golden opportunity to change its status, symbolized in the U.N. Charter as an enemy of the Allied Forces during World War II, which Japan has held since the end of that war.

The government-planned legislation to extend the law for sending SDF personnel to Afghanistan beyond its expiration on Nov. 1 is the minimum Japan should do.

The current SDF activities to help the United States and other countries in their efforts to rebuild Afghanistan center around refueling their warships, simply because Japan cannot afford to take part in activities linked to maintaining public order in that country that are being undertaken by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Those who make such sarcastic, haughty comments as “How long is Japan going to be content with playing the role of a gas station?・must shut their mouths until the issue of exercising Japan’s right to collective defense is resolved.