November 12, 2014 / 3:23 PM / in 3 years

Year of crises stretches militaries, governments to limit

Ukrainian servicemen ride on an armoured vehicle near the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve October 6, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - From a standoff with Russia to fights against Ebola and Islamic State, 2014 has pitted western policymakers against a scale of crises unparalleled in recent years.

The result, current and former officials say, has been a degree of overstretch in Washington, Whitehall and Brussels on a scale few can remember. The risk is that other danger signs get missed.

Even when officials say they know what needs to be done, an era of budget cuts means the required resources, particularly military, may simply not be there.

President Barack Obama took office wanting to move on from an era of international entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while large U.S.-led military interventions might be over, a period of multiple crises may only just be beginning.

“The world is changing in front of us,” U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno told a military conference in Washington last month.    

Odierno said plans to cut troop numbers to 450,000 from a peak of some 570,000 in the last decade were no longer viable. The limit should be 490,000, he said.

Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine has also raised questions over European defense cuts.

“We are witnessing first hand mistaken assumptions about the number, duration, location and size of future force conflicts, and the need to conduct post-stability operations,” Odierno said. “These miscalculations translate directly into increased military risk.”

Multiple other troubles have the diplomatic community stretched to the limit, officials say.

Violence in Nigeria and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 373 demanded a response while demonstrations in Hong Kong, leadership uncertainties in North Korea, possible Scottish independence and territorial disputes in the South China Sea between Beijing and some of its Asian neighbors have all required new analysis and contingency planning.

Humanitarian crises have been rising too. The World Health Organization for the first time is simultaneously handling five disasters: Ebola, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan and Central African Republic.

“Everyone is knackered,” said a British official on condition of anonymity.    

    

LONG DAYS, SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

Those covering the Middle East are at the sharp end, forced to deal with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Israel’s Gaza incursion, Iran’s nuclear negotiations and simultaneous crises in Libya and Yemen.

“It means long days and sleepless nights,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told a meeting of networking group Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

“It means meetings are attended by deputies instead of by principles ... Obviously, when you have one crisis you want to do it well. And we have been dealing with plenty.”

Some officials have been repeatedly reassigned as new crunches sprung up. One example cited was officials focusing on Yemen being switched to Russia instead. Teams covering countries like Libya complain they have been all but forgotten.

Such years are not unknown: 1991 saw Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and a temporary coup in Moscow, 1994 saw multiple disasters in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda. But the sheer scope of 2014’s flashpoints is unusual.    

Inevitably, those at the top are most stretched. Unlike their underlings, they need to be briefed on every major threat.

Officials said a packed diary forced U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to cancel a planned trip to Asia last week.

Senior figures often have political responsibilities too and have focused on last week’s U.S. mid-term elections and a UK election in 2015.

In such an environment, experts say details get lost simply through lack of time.

Making Obama aware of a specific danger such as Islamic State meant explicitly calling him to talk about just that, former National Security adviser Jim Jeffrey told Reuters in September, not giving him “a brief on seven subjects with number five being the growing IS threat”.

Additional reporting by Jason Szep in Washington and Adrian Croft in Brussels. Editing by Mike Peacock

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