Hugo Chavez is making news again, this time threatening war with Colombia (a U.S. ally) over the assassination of terrorist elements that have taken refuge in Ecuador. The facts aren't quite known, but it is alleged the Colombia sent military forces into Ecuador to attack members of the FARC, a terrorist group that has been staging attacks in Colombia and taking hostages (it is currently holding three U.S. citizens, for instance).
In what was considered a bizarre response, Chavez ordered several battalions to the border with Colombia and has threatened all-out war with the country. Ecuador is understandably upset, but many attribute Chavez's latest media-grabbing stunt as more saber-waving from a dictator who craves international attention for "standing up to U.S. imperialism." There are important reasons to take Chavez's threats at face value, but first some background.
United States Military Doctrine
Since the 1990s, the United States Armed Forces have held various iterations of a win-win doctrine. The current version of the doctrine (the 4-2-1 strategy) states that the United States will maintain the capability to "conduct two, overlapping 'swift defeat' campaigns… [and] the force must be able to 'win decisively' in one of the two campaigns". In layman's terms, this means the United States has set up its military to win two medium-sized wars simultaneously.
It is also important to note that the United States military debates its over-reaching strategy out in the open for the world to see. Not a single spy is needed to determine how we structure our military and with what aims in mind. A foreign agent can pick up any number of academic journals, surf the various public military and government websites, or read the many books written on the subject. No security clearance is needed. Other countries know full well what we design our military to do and conversely know what limitations we build into our system.
One can look at the current situation of the U.S. military and see how this strategy has worked (albeit not without bumps). The military is engaged in operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq and achieving successes in both countries. The only area where improvement has not been substantial is in the area of nation-building, particularly, getting the native populations to take responsibility for their own political destiny. The lack of will for U.S. imperialism has come at a price.
The current situation shows that the strategy can work and is working. Al Qaeda in Iraq is essentially no more. However, it has also shown that it engages a large proportion of the resources available to the United States military that can be used for war-fighting. The preventative operations still continue, sure, but it is less than clear that the United States could, without significant difficulty, engage in a third conflict; much less a fourth conflict.
The Foreign Policy Objectives of China and Russia
In the sense of power distribution, international relations is similar to a zero-sum game. When one nation loses power, some other nation or nations gain power. The inverse is also true; when a nation gains power, it comes at the expense of another. When the USSR collapsed, the United States largely gained the power that was left on the table. This has been a point of consternation for some time for the former world power.
On the other hand, China, which has never been a superpower, does overtly crave such a status. In order to achieve such a status, the United States would have to relinquish or lose some of its current power. This leaves China and Russia as partners in a similar quest, to gain international power at the expense of the United States, the only country which that power must come from.
As an additional sideshow, there are a variety of powers across the globe that would cheer at the prospect of an American military embarrassment (no small number are European). Many lay commentators cheer on Russia and China, who criticize America's foreign policy, including commentators in the United States. One ought not to be naïve to think that these nations which murder journalists and dissidents, repress speech, and shun the rule of law inside their own borders are suddenly acting with the purity of wind-driven snow once on the international stage.
Currently, both Russia and China have ties with Venezuela (that include Russia shipping military goods to Venezuela). Russia also has historical ties with Serbia and has been a vocal supporter of Serbia against the independence of Kosovo. Currently, both areas are now volatile with Chavez's threats on one side and antagonistic behavior by Serbia on the other. Kosovo and Colombia, on the other hand, are US foreign policy commitments to continue to support those countries.
As an important counterpoint, there are elements in China and Russia that do not see eye-to-eye with the hostile-to-the-US foreign policy. They are minorities but they are the ones with money. Many of the largest businesses in both countries are beneficiaries of the American economy and thus have a vested interest in the status quo.
Could Chavez Be Serious?
Currently, the United States economy is in trouble; there is broad consensus on that at this point. Bad lending is never a good thing for an economy. Full-on economic collapses are usually combinations of multiple factors, bad lending often being one. So if Chavez isn't serious, he, along with Russia and China, is quite stupid. That is a presumption we ought not to make.
The United States military is structured to win two conflicts simultaneously. If both Kosovo and Colombia-Venezuela go hot, even militarily we would be stretched thin, if not to the breaking point. Odds are we would face the choice of sacrificing one or the other to avoid "losing" a war. With forces already on the ground in Kosovo under the auspices of NATO, we would likely have no choice but to fight in that conflict. Colombia, on the other hand, would be very easy to leave out to dry.
If forced to fight in both additional conflicts, it would provide an enormous additional strain on an already troubled economy. Drastic funding choices would have to be made to support the resources required to fight in all four conflicts simultaneously independent of the number of troops consideration. It is entirely possible that it could push an economy on the brink of recession into a full-on recession. Or for that matter, push an economy in a recession into a far worse economic position.
If China and Russia want to take definitive action to ensure American power is decreased, all they have to do is stoke the flames of conflict in Kosovo and Colombia. American political debate is focused on the superficials; no real political movement would support retaliatory action for subtle actions by Russia and China to provoke other nations to pick fights. In short, there would be little political cost to Russia and China in provoking these fights while there is everything to gain.
The only counterbalancing effect is whether those nations would prefer to ride on America's economic coattails or if they'd rather see American foreign power decline to their advantage. With the economic troubles America is facing, it becomes increasingly tempting to think those economic coattails aren't as long as they once seemed. Time will tell which trains of thought will win out.