With 129,000 troops in Iraq and costs of roughly $4 billion a month, the US is working hard to persuade the international community to share a larger portion of the financial and military burden.
But at the latest UN General Assembly meeting, President George Bush received little indication from other nations that any significant assistance would be forthcoming in the near future.
Unless that situation changes, the Bush administration could be forced to make some tough comprises on other military commitments and domestic spending programmes, according to political experts in Washington.
Extended occupation duty
Two-thirds of US Army ground troops are already committed to Iraq and other regions around the world.
Requirements of the occupation have disrupted troop rotation plans and the Pentagon is calling up more National Guard and Reserve members and extending their tours of duty to one year.
While few people are suggesting the military is stretched beyond what it can handle, if the security problems in Iraq continue indefinitely, there remains the possibility that the Department of Defence (DOD) will need to divert troops from other regions to meet this ongoing challenge.
“Where [Iraq] does have an impact is where you have troops being pulled out of other places to pull tours of duty in Iraq,” said Jay Farrar, a political and military affairs expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Occupying Iraq has committed
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defence in the Reagan administration, said if the Pentagon is unable to reduce the demand for troops in Iraq, it might begin to consider cherry picking small numbers of troops from Europe and elsewhere.
“I think that probably they would look at the Balkans and hand that over more to the Europeans,” Korb said.
Just over 5000 US troops are stationed in the Balkans, 31,500 in South Korea, 9600 in Afghanistan, 1150 in the Philippines and 750 in the Sinai Peninsula, according to the DOD.
If the Bush administration is unable to convince other nations to send more troops to Iraq, the Pentagon will need to decide sometime in the next six months whether to pull troops from other areas, or call up even more men and women from non-active duty ranks, Korb said.
“Come next February or March you’re going to have big decisions, because you’re going to have to call up more Reserves if you want to maintain your commitments,” he said.
Few countries are ready to offer
While the US would be able to sustain its global military presence by increasing the activity of the Guard and Reserve forces, the long-term strain on these soldiers with careers and families could have a negative effect on recruitment and retention levels, Farrar said.
So far, the Guard and Reserves are having no trouble soliciting new recruits, something many attribute to a stagnant economy.
But the Pentagon could have real problems retaining individuals who are forced to endure unexpectedly gruelling tours in Iraq, he said.
“It will have more of an impact on retention, and these are people who’ve been in the Guard and Reserve for some time who decide they can’t take the strain anymore,” he said.
If the occupation of Iraq leads to a US reduction in other foreign policy commitments, humanitarian missions could take the first hit.
The US Bureau of Public Debt puts the total national debt at just under seven trillion dollars. As of 25 September it stood at:
With so many troops bogged down in Iraq for the foreseeable future, the US may be far more reluctant to engage in humanitarian interventions down the road, Farrar said.
Other countries in need of military assistance might be out of luck.
“I would agree that it influences the thinking about what to decide to do,” he said. “When you’re putting the majority of your forces in one place you will have to make a trade-off with something new.”
The Pentagon appeared reluctant to intervene militarily in Liberia in August, a position that was undoubtedly influenced by the situation in Iraq, said Susan Rice, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, a DC-based think tank.
With so much at stake in Iraq, other US foreign policy initiatives could suffer a diminution of focus and resources in the weeks and months to come, she said.
“In terms of attention and troops, there’s definitely a great sucking sound in Iraq and that’s to the detriment of North Korea and Iran and the Middle East peace process,” she said.
Foreign policy aside, the most intense debate in Washington these days is over money—money being spent in Iraq and money desperately needed for domestic initiatives at home.
Indeed, many members of Congress and many citizens around the country are starting to question how the US can afford to spend tens of billions of dollars in Iraq while the economy remains in the doldrums.
Congress may protest paying for
President Bush recently asked Congress for $87 billion to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, $20 billion of which would go toward reconstruction and energy projects.
But with US residents along the East Coast having just experienced multiple black outs of their own, criticism of the decision to pour money into improving Iraqi energy services may grow louder, Farrar said.
“Those kinds of things do kind of come home to roost to the average citizen as they start to see themselves going without things.”
Even Republicans in Congress are beginning to break ranks over budgetary problems and the ongoing cost of the occupation.
In a recent article published in National Review Online, Rep. Tom Feeney took a shot at the Bush administration, arguing that American taxpayers should not be forced to bear the financial burden for Iraq.
“Why should US citizens have to pay one additional penny for this rebuilding when Americans have already paid tens of billions of dollars for the liberation of Iraq with a huge military operation and more preciously, thousands of our own soldiers’ blood?”, Sweeney asked.
Because the money appropriated for Iraq is provided in the form of supplemental spending bills, it’s difficult to make the case that the occupation is draining funds from domestic programs, Rice said.
“I don’t think you can really talk in those terms, about robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Criticising the president unlikely
Instead, what concerns many economists is the rising level of deficit spending by the Bush administration, something that shows no signs of abating.
Next year, the deficit is projected to be roughly $480 billion. If it continues to grow larger, while overall economic growth remains meagre, the government could be forced to cut spending on various federal programs in the years to come, economists say.
President Bush, already deflecting calls from many congressional Democrats to roll back significant portions of the tax cuts he pushed through, will probably confront a choice between military spending and tax relief, Farrar said.
“The real nut crunching, I think, is going to come when we see the direction they go in terms of the taxes…It may well be that members of Congress stand up and say ‘Mr. President, you can’t have both,’” he said.
The likelihood of a reduction in the military budget is remote, said Edward Atkeson, a former Army major general and now a senior fellow at the Institute of Land Warfare at the Association of the US Army, a military think tank.
The political risk in Congress of pushing for defence cuts would be too great at this point, he said.
“Anybody doing so would just be so quickly blackballed in political corners,” he said.