Theodore Roosevelt understood the value of deterrence. He once said, 'speak softly and carry a big stick.' What he meant was, that with the U.S. then an emerging power, with such clear symbols of great power status as the 'Great White Fleet' (a fleet of the most modern steam powered dreadnaughts then on the sea) and with the recent example of the Spanish-American war to show that the U.S. could kick butt on other countries, any European power that thought of challenging American hegemony over the western hemisphere (where the U.S. felt free to overthrow governments, invade countries or carry out police actions as befit her, but would brook no interference from other countries) or in the northern Pacific (Hawaii and the Philippines) would have to face the wrath of that Great White Fleet, which under the leadership of Admiral Dewey and armed with longer range and more accurate guns, had wrecked the Spanish fleet at Manila at the cost of a single dead American sailor. But the key is that he never went to war against any of the European powers. As long as he had the deterrent intact and limited conflicts to occasional short, intense episodes against some petty latin American dictator who had worn out his welcome in Washington, 'gunboat diplomacy' worked. True there was a brief rebellion in the Philippines that Roosevelt brutally suppressed but he did so by pouring in enough Americans to crush it and then pulled out the marines in time so that they were still a credible deterrent.
Today though, we see another story out: Don Rumsfeld is worrying about the military buildup on the part of Washington's latest nemesis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Though I have myself said some good things about the democratically elected Chavez in the past, clearly recently he has been taking a path that is increasingly bellicose.
In terms of belligerence, however, he is still way behind North Korea and Iran. Why are these nations all trying to pull Washington's tail right now?
Not hard to see why. George Bush used the big stick. Our military is now trapped in Iraq, and we have no way to get it out any time soon. Recent call backs of former service members and national guardsmen who had left the military are effectively a draft (though one which is politically less damaging and avoids the thorny issue of the 'gays in the military' policy which if a full draft were implemented, then claiming to engage in homosexual activity would become a way to dodge the draft.) What this shows is that our military is stretched to the limit. And we well know why-- the Rumsfeld doctrine, which was designed to use a 'leaner, meaner' military and put less troops on the battlefield has in fact left us more vulnerable and weaker, as the insurgency which General Shinseki feared would be planted in Iraq if we occupied initially with anything less than 400,000 troops, has in fact occurred. It has grown to the point that even if we could scrape together 400,000 troops today (which would have to almost all be American since most of our coalition partners have bailed on us) it would be a matter of too little, too late. The eventual reconfiguration of Iraq as three separate nations has already begun, and the sooner the Bush administration realizes it the better off we will all be. For that matter, we have muffed the war in Afghanistan (and the biggest muff there IS Iraq) so that we are now stuck in a much more difficult and deteriorating situation there too, thanks again to the 'Rumsfeld doctrine.'
So we no longer have the deterrent that the Iranians and others once had to fear. And they know that until we can extricate ourselves from the quicksand of Iraq, they have no reason to fear it or to be deterred from anything.
Just remember that George Bush took over a superpower. When he leaves office, the U.S. still will be the strongest power in the world, but 'superpower' status probably won't be accurate anymore.