Monday, October 16, 2006

Monday with McKenna: Re-Learning the Obvious

With less than a month to the mid-terms, a few Democrats are finally spouting the message that we and others in the blogosphere have been delivering for years; and the tone is getting appropriately clearer. Consider John Kerry's remarks in New Hampshire:

"This war is utterly disastrous," he said. "It's without parallel in modern American foreign policy history in the incompetence and in the lack of effort to bring elders of both parties together and create an atmosphere of solving it. And I am incensed that young Americans are losing their lives because these guys are arrogant and incompetent."

Well, now that a few politicians are finally stating openly what has been obvious to many of us for a long time, perhaps this is a theme that deserves further consideration. So Terry McKenna is back now with more on "re-learning the obvious."

The US has spent the 60 years after WW2 trying not to learn the obvious, that we aren’t strong enough to control the world. Sure, military enthusiasts can construct fanciful scenarios in which, under just the right circumstances, we can march our forces into some trouble spot and voila, problem solved. But as we can see from the Iraq debacle, good things don’t occur at the end of a gun. Yet after all these years of mixed results, the governing principal behind our foreign policy and defense strategy is that we must maintain American hegemony. Thus every possible threat must be both understood and managed. The understanding part is fine; the trouble comes with action.

Amusingly, the defense enthusiasts are just as hopeless as are domestic policy wonks with their dreamy notions – too bad, because we don’t really know the consequences of any policy until it is too late, and we don’t have the unlimited resources necessary for genuine world domination.

The current dilemma with North Korea is instructive. If we want to engage in a genuine military (naval) blockade, we should plan for likely North Korean counter measures. The worst-case response by North Korea would be a ground attack on South Korea – that’s where N Korea could do the most harm and it is where they have their greatest strength. They already have forces amassed and deployed; they also have a battle plan. South Korea is similarly prepared and deployed. If attacked, it is assumed that South Korea could hold its own, but if US aid were needed, we don’t have excess troops to spare.

Thus we see the problem with the real world. It’s just too big. And look at the number of regions around the world where US forces might be helpful. We have Lebanon – the US had to beg Europeans to cobble together a few thousand soldiers to police the recovery. And then we have Darfur – same problem, we are in the position of begging others to undertake a mission that we deem a necessary component of US foreign policy. By the way, don’t take this as suggesting that I support military action to end genocide – I don’t, for such efforts are generally doomed to failure – but clearly, the US has taken a strong and long-term position in favor of such intervention.

Iraq has undone us. Yet it’s no more than a single front in the so-called global war on terror. And if we compare the size of the Iraq effort to real world war, Iraq turns out to be a puny affair. The WW2 Normandy invasion included over 300,000 Allied troops as early as the fifth day. By the end of the Battle of Normandy, Allied casualties included 60,000. Yet now, a single engagement has undone us. (Don’t take this as an argument in favor of our constructing a much larger force; the time for that idea is long gone).

But to return to my point – we need to take the same reasonable attitude towards defense policy that we have toward social policy, and that is; focus on what is possible and only do what you can afford.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, conservatives fought the battle against domestic excess. Their mantra was that throwing money at a problem is not a solution. That despite the tons of money thrown at the urban poor, they remained poor. Their schools failed. And households remained mired in a dependent welfare culture. Thus, the war on poverty begun by President Johnson was a failure (food stamps and Medicaid are the exception). And then we have the issue of taxes. While there is no proof that higher taxes reduce prosperity, there is a limit to the amount of taxes that can be collected from any single population.

Can liberals fight against defense/foreign policy excess? Don’t know. They will need a careful plan of action. If not well articulated, they will come off as weak on defense, and that’s exactly what Republicans want. But someone has to make the case, and if not the Democrats, then who?

Closing comment: American talking heads constantly lament about how other nations seem unwilling to assist us in this or that strategic enterprise. (Tom Friedman is an example of a whiner). Thus, in the years before the second Iraq war, we were frustrated that the French, Germans and Russians would not assist us in strangling Iraq via a more complete commercial boycott. Similarly, right now, we are again frustrated that we can’t muster a fully united front against Iran. We may do a bit better with North Korea, for they’ve really pissed off China on this one. But maybe it’s time to think that maybe the other guys are right. They don’t think they can control the world, so they don’t even try.


If you want to read what genuine professionals write about strategy, you can read Strategic Challenges for Counterinsurgency and the Global War on Terrorism. It is produced by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US War College They write well and the articles are interesting. But the problem is, when you put it all together, you realize that we just can’t do it all.

For an overview of the neocon vision of American hegemony – read this article. Note that it includes the notion of higher defense spending. It's from a reliable neutral source – the Christian Science monitor.

—T. McKenna

No comments: