Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Shooting Blanks in the Next World Order

You're a superpower that's already beaten up the rest of the world. What do you do, go to Disney Land or continue to beat up on the rest of the world?

Rome and Napoleonic France are but two historic examples of empires that failed to realize the military power that created them was insufficient, in itself, to sustain them.

If there's something good to come from the Iraq war, it's that perhaps the United States will have learned a lesson about wielding great power in time to avoid becoming a footnote in some other culture's history book.

With an arms budget equal to the military expenditures of the rest of the world combined, the United States represents the most lopsided balance of military might seen in the industrial age. The problem with that kind of dominance is that there are very few instances where armed conflict is altogether necessary, and even fewer where an armed conflict will turn out well.

The Clausewitzean theory of absolute war became all but obsolete with the advent of a bipolar world in which the two superpowers possessed arsenals that could have ended human life on the planet. The Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) theory rested on another of Clausewitz's dictums, that war is political in nature, and that no desired political aim of either side could be achieved through global thermo-nuclear war.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, absolute war became even more moot. The United States could, if it wished, quite literally blow every other nation off the map. But what would be the political purpose in that? (And as songwriter Randy Newman might ask, where would we go on vacation?)

Barring truly extraordinary provocation, America is limited to use of its conventional forces in armed conflict, but even in conventional wars, the power ratio between the U.S. and any opponent is ridiculous. There is no conventional military force in existence that we can't make fairly quick work of (which is one reason no one is seriously trying to build a conventional force that could take ours on). Hence the kind of asymmetric, insurgent style conflict we currently witness in Iraq.

Let's set one thing straight about counterinsurgency operations. There are better and worse ways to conduct them, but there is no good way to conduct them. And you can't design a military that specializes in counterinsurgency because then it wouldn't be good at doing what it's supposed to do, which is fight and defeat other military forces.

Counterinsurgencies get out of hand when the occupying force, frustrated at being unable quell the revolt, starts lining large sections of the population up in front of firing squads. Once you start doing that kind of thing, you wind up killing a whole lot of people--enough that it might have been better to just drop a bunch of nukes on them.

And what's that going to get you politically if you're a sole superpower that insists other nations respect human rights?

(Sidebar: an AP report from late Tuesday says:
Iraq’s new prime minister promised “no mercy” for terrorists Tuesday as President Bush paid a surprise visit to Baghdad on the eve of a security crackdown involving 75,000 troops, road closures and a curfew.

Stand by for this to turn uglier than Frankenstein's baby.)

Being Careful How You Use It

One of the dangers of a sole super power maintaining a standing, all-volunteer military of overwhelming combat force is that it's tempting to overuse, especially when you have an administration in power--like the one we have now--that's predisposed to overuse it.

Back in my active duty days, I wrote to a friend, "Every time our political leaders commit us to major armed conflict, they expose our failure to achieve our main purpose in the post-modern, post-Soviet world, which is to deter armed conflicts."

Under the neoconservative regime, we not only gave up on the idea of deterring armed conflicts, we purposely set out to create them. And, lamentably, we shined our heinies in Iraq by showing the entire world that we're very good at starting "preemptive" wars that by their very natures are not "winnable."

In the Next World Order, America needs to come up with a new calculus of power. The old equations simply don't work any more.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his weekday commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


Jeff's Next World Order Series


  1. William Bollinger8:14 AM

    "War is political in nature, and that no desired political aim of either side could be achieved through global thermo-nuclear war".

    Unless those political entities are governed by an apocalyptic theocracy.

  2. William,

    I'm not inclined to think such a thing actually exists. I could be wrong, but don't think so.

    Yes, political leaders today appeal to the apocalyptic portions of their followership, but they themselves, I'm convinced, are quite rational--in a realpolitik sort of way.

  3. William Bollinger12:27 PM

    Although dubya sometimes gives me visions of Slim Pickens/Major T. J. "King" Kong taking that last ride down, I agree that he's probably in it for the power and the money. Unfortunately, their appeal to the apocalyptic portions of their followership reinforces that followerships control.

    I was more looking ahead.

  4. This is a fascinating subject, William, and one I'm afraid will have to wait until I can make a more in-depth analysis of it.

    Let me just say that I personally think the last truly apocalyptic emperor was Hitler, and I don't really think he started out that way.



  5. Jeff...I still consider myself a fairly new blogger (feb this year) but my brain has been tweaked in a great way reading people's well thought out opinions (I ignore the rant types). Yours make me want to pick up my strategy book for one of my poli sci courses re. war strategists..a thick pill but a really great reference book. I need to dig up my books again because some shared references make for better discussions...
    Ingrid(btw..thx for your link at the other post

  6. Ingid,

    I do try to think things out. Whether I think them out well is often a subject of debate.

    One of my aims is to popularize philosophies of armed conflict. I'm especially keen to make Clausewitz and others more acessable to the general public.

    So many of the "experts" spinsters who encourage and support war as a vital tool of power. Over many years, I've come to the conclusion that it's a lousy way for a sole superpower to conduct foreign policy.

    I'm also convinced that you can't really separate foreign policy from domestic policy.

    But I'll write more on that in the future.

  7. Jeff, especially because of your military background do I appreciate your posts. You are also a 'bigger picture' type which most people tend to forget. It's not all about 'Bush and Co' , it is about a trend that is reflected from the American people..after all, they voted for him. (well, those relative 'few' who voted period) I am perculating thoughts on articles I have been reading re. fundamentalism by Robert Jensen and Davidson Loehr. I think it's great you're trying to educate people about armed conflict philosophies. I do remember Clausowitz but it's been 10yrs since I read that book I mentioned and when I find it, I'll mention it. You might know it.
    Anyhow, the connection you're going to make on domestic and foreign should be an interesting one, if not informative for those who haven't made that connection..let me guess; follow the money trail, again??

  8. Albrecht3:32 PM

    You quote the Roman Empire as an example of a short lived empire (due to militaristic misadventures). However the Roman Empire was able to stick around for an awfully long time. If you - arbitrarily - assume it started with the defeat of Hannibal and ended with the collapse of Western Rome in the 5th century you talk about approx. 6 centuries, far longer than any other empire in Western history (only China had more staying power). And Eastern Rome only finally collapsed when assaulted by the Turks in the 15th century. By human standards it is an astounding success in empire building and maintenance.

    May be this is petty; obviously it takes nothing away from your main argument.

  9. Albrecht:

    I have a thing about people doing the straw man thing around here.

    Did I use the world "short lived" anywhere in this article?

  10. The problem with war as a long-term policy is that it pretty much destroys the economy that made a war machine possible in the first place. The example of the Russian czars with "The Great" appended to their names is instructive there -- their wars ended up with Russia being geographically the largest nation on the planet, but also with it being the most backwards of major powers, until the day came when some small island nation that only a few decades before had been fighting their wars with bows and arrows defeated the might of the Russian Empire at Port Arthur and Pusan. Or let us consider the Ottoman Empire, which in the course of 200 years went from having the world's most advanced army threatening Western Europe to being the "Dead Man of Europe", bankrupt, technologically backward, and eventually to be broken up.

    Endless war destroys nations. That is the lesson of history. It is a lesson, unfortunately, that our esteemed Dear Leader and His henchmen apparently have not learned, due to their use of the novel _1984_ as their manual for governance, with its requirement of permenant war in order to maintain the power of the Party...

    - Badtux the Orwellian Penguin

  11. BadTux:

    I think I've said this elsewhere, but part of the problem with this admin is that it's hell bent to be like the Reagan admin.

    Problem is, there's no peer competitor to spend into the dirt.

    And yeah, they're Orwellian all right.