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August 19, 2008

No Sabers to Rattle

Roy Meachum

A chance encounter. While Pushkin and I were taking a downtown stroll, an impossibly young captain out of the Point four years and returned recently from the Middle East. His USMA graduate-father along and a pretty wife; she wanted to talk to the pleased English pointer. She and Pushki retreated just beyond the conversational range.


Initially the older, retired officer and I talked about Col. Oren Swain, my dearly beloved commanding officer in Europe; I went to his wake some dozen years back. His sons all followed their father up the Hudson. Two passed their father and made general. I remember them as teenagers, among the first dependents to show up in postwar Germany. They remembered me from the American Forces Network shows.


Careful not to offer or solicit anything that might infringe on loyalty to his chain of command, I talked about the war. Saturday's captain agreed that his two tours of Iraq convinced him the enemy forces were not the timid men they were portrayed in the invasion early days. They were hardly to become shocked and awed by any tricks in Washington's faulty arsenal. For a moment, the young eyes reflected something more. I will not try to suggest a name.


The two military professionals agreed the constitutional provision was exactly right: civilians should control our military forces. The risk arises when our men, women and powerful weaponry are used for political means. I stopped very short of soliciting the captain, his father and his wife on what they thought of the present war. We talked of Highland Falls, the saloon-filled village on the Hudson where the Revolutionary fathers founded a fort that became West Point "school for boys (and girls)."


Of course there was no mention of the current turmoil created by the president of Georgia, who meant to bring firmly into his republic two ethnic regions that decided they wanted to remain within the Russian Federation. But the situation truly mirrors the state of U.S. armed forces. They are no longer sabers to rattle. As an international threat, they have been reduced to dull, plastic knives.


It must be very clear: President Mikhail Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia without clear provocation. To absolutely no one's surprise, the restored Russian army drove the Georgians back where they belong, and a little bit farther. This is the same Red Army that sneaked out of Afghanistan nine years ago, its tail firmly between its legs.


Since the former Soviet state made noises and motions about joining NATO, the European Union raised its objections; current EU chief Nicolas Sikorsky, the president of France, registered diplomatic objections. Those objections and American bluster had little effect. Despite claimed signatures on an agreement, reports continue to pour in how Russian troops are bolstering their armor, showing no signs of pulling out soon. And there's nothing anyone can do about it – especially George W. Bush.


If Americans generally remain out of the loop, most Europeans know it's payback time in the Bush White House: when our oldest allies shied away from endorsing the unsanctioned invasion of Iraq, the Republic of Georgia saluted front and center. Although its contributions amounted to little more than a large corporal's guard, Tbilisi was there when Mr. Bush needed the most. Washington cannot now be seen sliding out on such a staunch ally.


The thought has occurred, of course, that Mr. Saakashvili might very well have ordered his armed forces down on South Ossetia and Abkhazia because he knew he had the current U.S. administration in his pocket.


A wire-service reported this weekend:


"President Bush 'warned' Russia Saturday that it cannot lay claim to the two separatist regions in U.S.-backed Georgia even though their sympathies lie with Moscow.' There is no room for debate on this matter,' the president informed reporters."


In the minds' eyes, the Kremlin could be seen yawning. Why shouldn't they? Equally Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The president of Iran knows there's nothing to fear from "the world's mightiest arsenal." Unfortunately for Washington and the American people, there are simply no troops to spare from the current obligations. Dropping bombs? That's the Israelis' way, but only when a strong American presence could protect them in the clinches.


To get further down to the nitty and the gritty, the troops in Iraq are far outnumbered by "contractors" – companies that perform military obligations and duties and paid by American taxpayers. Meanwhile, as you read, Iraq's corrupt government has piled up hundreds of billions from the world's third largest oil deposits.


Everywhere I turn: negligence, stupidity and greed.


That young captain has my great sympathy. During his father's duty days, there were young and eager Americans to command. Even though they might carry the proper papers and passports, today's Army consists of "volunteers." Another way to say "mercenaries." And they are in such short supply the contractors must be called in.


That was the precise condition in ancient Rome when the great empire fell!


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