America's costly new global role
The US is entering an era not unlike the cold war - militarily engaged all over a world of danger points.
WASHINGTON — President Bush envisions a Middle East of peace and stability, a region that moves increasingly toward a neighborhood of democratic states no longer led by despots or providing a breeding ground for terrorists.
But it's becoming clear that the costs of such an effort - in terms of US treasure and military forces - is likely to be enormous.
And it comes at a time when the United States finds itself entering an era not unlike the cold war - militarily engaged around a world marked by potential danger points ranging from Iraq and nearby Afghanistan to the Korean Peninsula, the Philippines, and Colombia.
Looking at the growing and shifting military requirements the US faces, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey says, "We've got a perilous 24 months in front of us."
"How our allies and adversaries define themselves in the next 24 months will shape how we view them for two decades to come," says General McCaffrey, a senior battlefield commander in the 1990-91 Gulf War.
By tipping his cap to European and Arab friends and allies in a speech on Iraq's role in Middle East peace Wednesday, President Bush emphasized that he is listening to what the world has to say. But the vision of an almost serene president laying out the goals of war in terms of peace and human aspirations is likely to cause a certain amount of head-scratching both at home and around the world.
Bush has frequently dismissed global antiwar sentiment and said the US is ready for war with or without the United Nations. But now he's also promoting Arab, and specifically Palestinian, aspirations for democracy and prosperity as one more reason for that war.
On the Middle East, Bush took a passive tone regarding US action or even leadership.
He pledged that "America will seize every opportunity in pursuit of peace" in the Middle East conflict. But at a time when Israel's new government has taken a hard-line stance on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, Bush gave no indication that he would do anything to create or even encourage those opportunities - aside from perhaps going to war with Iraq, which he described as "a wealthy patron that pays for terrorist training."
Whether or not Bush's message has the desired effect on potential allies in the broader war on terrorism is unclear.
"Chances are that other states are not likely to line up behind the US based upon a speech or two," says Michael Glennon an expert in international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "It's much more likely to be bilateral diplomacy, in particular promises of economic assistance, that sways them."
Administration officials estimate that war in Iraq could cost upwards of $100 billion, not counting foreign aid to countries being wooed as allies and what could be years of commitment.
"The total price of a war in Iraq could easily add up to hundreds of billions of dollars - even a trillion or more - overwhelming a federal budget which is already sliding into deep deficits and warping the US economy," Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia warned this week.
Gen. Eric Shinseki, chief of staff of the Army, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that an occupation army of "several hundred thousand soldiers" likely would be needed in Iraq to maintain order, help with humanitarian aid, and protect a new civilian authority - probably for at least two years.
No one knows for sure if this will be the case. But there is no doubt that war and its aftermath would be expensive. And given its experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then the first Gulf War when America's quick withdrawal left Saddam Hussein in power, the US is being urged to stay in this fight for the long haul.
In congressional testimony this week, Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, reminded lawmakers that when Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan, the US lost interest - which led to rise of the Taliban, who provided safe haven for Osama Bin Ladan and Al Qaeda.
The United States "must remain committed to Afghanistan in order to make sure that terrorism is defeated completely, that Afghanistan gets a stability and economic function that would put it on its own feet," he said.
Creating stability in Iraq - the kind of "nation building" Bush has dismissed in the past - is likely to be much harder.
"Those of us who study democracy fulltime often talk about the list of basics you need," says James Walsh, an international-security expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government: "a robust middle class, a tradition of democracy, a variety of civil institutions [such as] lawyers' groups, unions, a strong and independent judiciary, a free, strong press - basically, a civil society, a civil structure, the underpinning for democracy."
"None of those are present in Iraq," adds Mr. Walsh.
Looking at the equally unsettled (and dangerous) situation on the Korean Peninsula, McCaffrey predicts it would take 30 years to build a civil society there - even assuming that North Korea "implodes" politically rather than instigating war in that region.
All in all, as Bush said this week, it is "a crucial period in the history of our nation, and of the civilized world."