Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Empire Strikes Out

America stands in danger of becoming a one-trick superpower. We may already be one. By pursuing a predominantly warfare-centric approach to foreign policy, we're treading on dangerous ground.

Since the early twentieth century, American wars have proven an increasingly ineffective means of achieving our national goals. Granted, some of these wars were unavoidable. Some of them produced good things. Some were even noble. But all of them brought unintended and undesirable results.

Termination of World War I--the war to end all wars--laid the groundwork for World War II. "The Good War" led to the decades long Cold War and the third world wars that accompanied it. We fought North Korea to a tie fifty years ago. Today, this backwater nation that can't feed its own people in wintertime still gives us security fits. America's recent presidential election illustrated that the national psyche still suffers from the aftershocks of Vietnam.

Like our other modern wars, the Global War on Terrorism has produced good things, most notably the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. But few people would care to call the GWOT an overwhelming success. Whatever brand of new math the National Counter-Terrorism Center is using to calculate the incidence of terrorist acts, it's clear that terrorism is in the rise. According to Central Intelligence Agency chief Porter Goss, Iraq has become the world center for terrorist recruiting and training. Afghanistan, once the "crown jewel" in the War on Terrorism, has surpassed Columbia as the leading exporter of narcotics, and hence a prime potential source of terrorist funding.

If that's winning the War on Terror, I'm glad we're not losing it.

But the worst news to come out of this war is the looming obsolescence of military force. The "best trained, best equipped" military in history did not defend America against the 9-11 attacks, nor did it deter them. This same military has been bogged down for two years by a rag tag collection of insurgents who fight with hand held and improvised weapons. It is over-extended in Iraq to such an extent that even chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, admits the military's potential inability to prevent further conflict--including surprise attack--is "trending toward significant." (Pentagon-speak for "things are getting worse.")


U.S. military spending has increased 40% since 9-11, and that's not counting the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. President George W. Bush has asked Americans to fork out $500 billion on defense in 2006, not including expenditures for Homeland Defense, Intelligence, and other hidden costs. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld says, "These increases are needed. And, America can afford them."

But one has to wonder why America needs to spend another half billion or so on a military that doesn't defend the homeland and is so-so at best when it comes to achieving our goals overseas.

Part of this price tag, according to Secretary Rumsfeld, is to fund "military transformation," an abstract program that incorporates murky concepts like "network-centric warfare" and "shock and awe." Transformation promises a technological breakthrough that will provide peace and prosperity through advanced ways and means of warfare. But as West Point military historian Fredrick Kagan notes, "Neither network-centric warfare nor 'shock and awe' provides a reliable recipe for translating the destruction of an enemy's ability to continue to fight into the accomplishment of the political objectives of the conflict." And of the "target set" mentality of the transformation movement, Kagan says, "...the American public should expect to see in the future many more wars in which U.S. armed forces triumph but the American political vision fails."

And as even the most casual student of Clausewitz knows, wars that do not achieve political objectives are merely "organized but senseless violence."

In economically trying times, how much can America afford to spend on senseless violence?


Noted political scientist Samuel Huntington devised the DIME model, which defined the tools of national power as diplomacy, information, military, and economy. Huntington identified economy as the most important national asset, and economically, America is locked in a thousand yard stare down a gun barrel.

The European Union's gross domestic product has caught up with ours, and China's is growing at an eye-watering rate. Combined, their economies are half again larger than ours, and they aren't bleeding a half trillion dollars a year on defense. The once almighty U.S. dollar struggles to keep pace with the once laughable Euro. Our trade deficit gap continues to widen, our national debt continues to grow like a beanstalk, and the price of oil continues to spurt through the roof. Shares in General Motors and Ford have been relegated to "junk" status.

America's information environment is downright Orwellian (Rove-wellian, in pop culture terms). You can't believe a word that comes from the collective mouth of our intelligence communities, and the most trusted anchorperson in our news media is John Stewart of Comedy Central's THE DAILY SHOW.

And our diplomacy? Our diplomacy consists of telling everybody to pack sand. Not exactly "diplomatic," is it?


Empires come, empires go. Some land softly, some crash into the back pages of somebody else's history books. Almost without exception, empires that ended badly failed to realize that the military power that established them was not sufficient, in itself, to sustain them.

America's days as a global hegemon are numbered. We can continue to pursue our fist-first approach to shaping the rest of the world in our image and collapse under the weight of our own hubris, or...

We can clean up our act and become the "shining city on the hill" that the rest of the world will aspire to emulate.


Jeff Huber is a retired U.S. naval officer. His articles on military and foreign policy affairs have appeared in PROCEEDINGS, THE NAVY, MILITARY.COM, and other periodicals.


  1. Hi Jeff. Nice blog-- I'll look forward to stopping by often.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Maureen. Hopefully, in a month or so, I'll have a decent collection of content here.