No coins, no COIN

Introduction:  It is important that move beyond the panic “oh my god” stage, and consider what these events mean for America.  On one hand, recessions are not Armeggedon, but part of the normal business cycle. The economy must both inhale and exhale. Let’s not be like the fictional savages, who each winter worry that the days will continue to shorten – and that Spring will never come.  On the other hand, this process is probably a major turning point for America. Difficult times force changes, not all of them welcome.

Summary:  The US military is structurally — in both doctrine and material – a global instrument by which a hegemonic power projects force on a global scale.  The time approaches when that will have to change.

The end of the post-world war II era will have many consequences.  Among them will be the end of American exceptionalism.  By that I do not mean that America will not be beacon of freedom and justice, nor that others will no longer model their societies on our best aspects.  Neither is a unusual phenomenon in history, hence not exceptional.

The most exceptional aspect of American political behavior is the belief that we need not count the costs of national greatness.  Not for social policy, and esp. not for foreign wars.  Look through the literature, such as

  • the speeches of John McCain, one of our leading advocates of national greatness,
  • the hundreds of papers in the Counterinsurgency Library,
  • the thousands of articles on the Small Wars Council.

In most of these money is no object in the pursuit of security (or other goals, often quite chimerical).  That is an exceptional way of thinking.  More so when one considers how our current account deficit has steadily increased since 1971 (when we went off the gold standard) — and the even more rapid increase in the foreign debts that finances the annual deficit.

That era will close soon, and the United States will return to earth.  Like everyone else, we will have to consider what foreign adventures we can afford before starting them — weighing their costs and benefits — and stop wars whose costs spiral out of control.  This will force a military revolution more profound than any since WWII, when we entered the “money is no object” era for weapons and foreign wars.

Not that the annual budget wars were not fought fiercely, but they will be conducted differently once budgets start their rapid and long-term decline.  Like any organization thrust into radically changed environment, restructuring — drastic changes in structure and doctrine — will be needed.

Maritime, air, and land — our approach to all will change.  Maintaining full-scale forces against purely theoretical future threats will become impossible.  Seeking dominance in every theater will become unrealistic.  Prioritization will become imperative.

Wars on land

Consider just land operations.  The battle rages between preparation for massive conventional combat and counter-insurgency operations.  The first is hideously expensive.

  • Foreign bases from which to project power.
  • The massive armored, amphibious, and airborne “fist.”
  • The large support “tail.”
  • And the large numbers of trained people required.

As we have learned in Iraq, counter-insurgency operations are also incredibly expensive.  A small war by most standards — except for the cost.  The government has carefully avoided public accounting, but most estimates of the full cost range from $1 – $2 trillion (including future costs for replacing the worn equipment, financing the debt and personnel benefits).

Like the UK after WWII, bean counters will play a large role in setting our national strategy.  Every foreign base, foreign operation, and foreign war requires foreign exchange.  An outflow of currency from the US, which must be borrowed or earned through trade.  With our national VISA card max’d out, we will need watch every foreign expenditure.

This is the opposite of our current practice.  For example, how many articles about Afghanistan weigh the costs and benefits as a guide to our actions there?  More typical is “analysis” which says that “we must” wage war there, otherwise unacceptable things will result.  A viewpoint only for children and soon-to-be bankrupts.

Paul Kennedy explained all this years ago, but we did not listen

The ur-text for this is Paul Kennedy’s great work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987).  From the Introduction:

The relative strengths of the leading nations in world affairs never remain constant, principally because of the uneven rate of growth among different societies … It sounds crudely mercantilistic to express it this way, but wealth is usually needed to underpin military power … If, however, too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes, then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term.

In the same way, if a state overextends itself strategically — by, say, the conquest of extensive territories or the waging of costly wars — it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all — a dilemma which becomes acute if the nation concerned has entered a period of relative economic decline.

Let’s act now, while there is still time

The combination of ruinous foreign spending and rapid debt accumulation has several likely endings if not arrested soon.

Either our creditors force cuts, perhaps (as the US has done to other nations through its proxies in the IMF) highly specific line-item cuts in government expenditures.

Or our debts increase until the interest charges begin to accelerate, the debtors “death spiral.”

Neither course leads to national security.  Let’s hope we act quickly on this insight, least it be a an “end time” insight.

“When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known.  The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.”

Preface to “Philosophy of Right” by G.W.F. Hegel, 1820


Originally published on Oct 6, 2008 at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.