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.
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