Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Our Strategic Calamity

On pages 52-3 of Dangerous Nation, Robert Kagan writes, “The revolutionary victory, though a vindication of the colonists’ long-developing sense of national greatness, produced a strategic calamity from which it would take two decades to recover. . . As would be the case repeatedly in American history . . . successful expansion and the fulfillment of long-held ambitions created new and difficult problems. After 1783 the problem was how to defend the vast new holdings. . . .”

We achieved another great victory in 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Cold War was over. We had won. We looked about us and low and behold there were no other superpowers. We stood supreme. It was our shining, unipolar moment. And yet it too was a “strategic calamity.” Prior to 1989 only certain nations were under our protection, but after 1989 most of the world was, either overtly or by implication. Back in 1783 we knew we couldn’t defend our “vast new holdings,” but in 1989, we didn’t know that. Many celebrated our success and imagined we could accomplish anything we chose to. And in we could, but “anything” is singular.

Zakaria in his essay, “The Future of American Power” writes, “The price tag for Iraq and Afghanistan together -- $125 billion a year – represents less than one percent of GDP.” So yes, we could afford to do Iraq and Afghanistan, but we didn’t necessarily have the foresight to realize that if we did those two, we couldn’t do anything else – at least not very well. Our defense expenditure is larger than anyone else’s, only 4.1 percent of our GDP, but it emphasizes technology and weapons more than manpower. Our military forces have budgets and decide how much to spend on weaponry and how much on manpower. Some guidelines were provided to them. They must be able to fight two wars at the same time, but not huge wars, not wars requiring huge armies.

So, yes, Bush did what he set out to do in regard to Afghanistan and Iraq. He didn’t totally “drain the swamp,” but he made a start. But it wasn’t just a matter of defeating enemies militarily. Those nations needed to be built up into something stable else we’d have to do it again; so we bogged ourselves down, not in an endless war, but in nation building. We have a good track record at building nations. Western Europe, West German, Japan and South Korea, have benefitted from our efforts. And it will be a very good thing if we succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, but . . .

This unipolar moment is a strategic calamity because we don’t have the military forces to take care of all the world’s problems, and we don’t quite know what to do about it. Iran is provocatively thumbing its nose at us while it builds a nuclear arsenal. We aren’t handling that situation at all.

Pakistan, now that Musharraf is gone, isn’t sure it needs a close relationship with us. Perhaps we can manage that situation with diplomacy. They do have a nuclear arsenal; and I’m sure we have “war gamed” taking their weapons away from them if they become too threatening and unstable. We can’t let them do anything they like because India is watching them in just the same way Israel is watching Iran. India and Israel will keep their hands off as long as we handle the problems.

And now it seems as though Russia is holding a grudge. They seem willing to take advantage of our over-extended unipolar moment by messing about in Georgia, one of our post-Cold-war allies. We aren’t in a position to do anything militarily there and hopefully nothing will be needed. Else we may be seen to abandon them in the same way we abandoned Hungary during the Cold War and the Shiites and Kurds after the First Gulf War. I notice that while Russia was throwing their weight about in Georgia we set up an anti-missile system in Poland. Is that our Polish tit for Russia’s Georgian tat? Maybe.

The Truman doctrine was to resist Communist expansion wherever possible. It was never proposed that we resist it everywhere. We understood back then that we had limits. I’m not so sure we understand that now. We have commitments all about the world, and yet we are limited in our ability to fulfill those commitments, and we aren’t doing anything to reconcile the difference between what we can do and what we are obligated to do.

Shouldn’t we be taking steps to “deal” with all our commitments? We could. We could deal with them one after the other, with one country after the other, by talking about what we could do in the way of defense and what the individual nations needed to do about their own defense. We seemed to be doing that with various nations. We armed Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for example, but neither of those nations is in a position to fight a major war. They could at best slow down an attacker until we got there. And what about Georgia. We armed them and they did their best but couldn’t hold off the Russians. Did we expect them to be able to? Did we promise to come to their aid if the Russians invaded them? Apparently not.

I am a supporter of the “Bush Doctrine” as described by Gaddis in Surprise, Security, and the American Experience, but this Strategic Calamity goes beyond that. Yes, we should do whatever is necessary to keep our nation safe and secure. We should even engage in preemption if the threat warrants that action. But given our unipolar position, our security isn’t just ours, but all our allies as well. Should we do whatever is necessary to preserve the security of all our allies? We haven’t answered that question. We haven’t said no, for that would be tossing some allies to the wolves, but we haven’t said yes because that would involve a capability beyond our means; so we drift and don’t say anything . . . and as Zakaria says we may be too dysfunctional politically to solve this “calamity.”

Lawrence Helm

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