Summary: Third in a series of notes about America’s grand strategy, and its future. Today America’s Department of Defense perhaps constitutes as perfect a model of institutional insanity as any in history. – borrowing much of this from other nations. Worse, we spend with no apparent attempt to balance costs and benefits. Scale this up to a five-year war and the result appears insane.
What is the root cause of the problems described in the previous chapters of this series? Perhaps national insanity, as our political order nears the end of its natural lifespan. Dementia is commonly associated with senility.
History shows a few cases of insanity in high military commanders. General Hajianestis (Greek Commander-in-Chief, 1921, Greek-Turkey War) would not rise from bed because he worried that his legs would shatter — since they were made of glass. Instances of institutional insanity are more common. The behaviors of Japan and German in WWII are, in their different ways, two examples of this.
Cost/Benefit analysis of War
Throughout history wars have often been profitable. For example, consider the Punic Wars – the cost Rome paid to achieve commercial dominance in the Mediterranean. But with the Napoleonic Wars and the invention of total war between developed nations, cost became an irrelevancy in the pursuit of national survival. With the development of atomic weapons a new cycle has begun, returning us to an era of limited war. Properly done small wars can prove effective, when the costs justify the benefits. For example, UK’s dozens of small wars until WWII were the cost of building a highly profitable empire.
The American “Empire” gives us security (perhaps, although I doubt it), but few commercial benefits (although some, like DoD’s vendors and select oil companies, make millions). With no obvious major enemies, we spend approximately as much as the rest of the world combined on security.
Worse, we wage our foreign adventures with borrowed funds. We have come full circle since the Revolution. We won our freedom with French loans that we never fully repaid. Now we wage the Iraq Expedition with loans from Asian and Middle Eastern creditors that we never intend to repay.
Consider the cost/benefit ratio of the Iraq War. At least $500 billion in operating costs. Estimates of total costs — including replacing equipment, disability and pensions — range from $1 to $2 trillion. Even if we achieved all the President’s victory conditions, would the cost seem reasonable vs. the benefits gained?
Even tactically there is little sense to our spending. Consider a $50 million US aircraft dropping a $60 thousand worth of smart munitions on an Iraq neighborhood (the GBU-38, a 500 lb Joint Direct Attack Munition, JDAM, costs aprox $21,000). A few poorly trained insurgents killed, a few civilians killed, a few thosand dollars or so in property damage. The financial impact on us – the “recoil” – exceeds the damage to our foes. An F-22 on these missions, at several hundred million $ per craft (inclusive), defines insanity in motion.
A “what if” to put this in prespective
A simple thought-experiment highlights the absurdity of this war. Iraq’s GDP is roughly $25 billion. What if President Bush had tasked the State Department and CIA with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, budgeting $200 billion — four years of Iraq’s national income?
Medieval generals said, “I can take any city behind whose walls I can get a coin of gold.” Even with a thousand years of inflation, $200 billion buys a lot of gold coins. With such a sum we might have bought a majority of Iraq’s generals and put the entire country on our payroll. Our patrols through Iraq’s villages would be greeted with cascades of flowers. The peoples of Iraq would love us as crazy but nice infidels. Not forever, as nobody can buy friendship. But long enough to help rebuild Iraq and exit gracefully. Without the 30 thousand wounded American soldiers, over 4,400 dead Coalition soldiers, and several hundred thousand Iraq civilian casualties.
Insanity in motion
This is just an exercise in counterfactural history. In the real world President Bush would have been declared insane and removed from office had he proposed spending $200 billion to wage a non-violent revolution in Iraq. Instead he lead us into war amidst cheers, a war that has proved costly in money and blood — perhaps ending with terrible consequences for both Iraq and America.
Insanity, but bipartisan insanity. The War – if not details of its execution — was supported until recently by leading Democrat such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.
Insanity, but professionally executed by highly educated and trained military officers using the finest modern hardware.
War waged without regard for cost, without considering how this money could be better spent to improve our security (a trillion dollars could have rebuilt our energy infrastructure).
Grand Strategy at its finest in 21st century America.
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Other posts about grand strategy
Does America need a grand strategy? If so, what should it be? Answers to these questions illuminate many of the questions hotly debated about foreign policy and national security. Here are some posts on this subject.
- The Myth of Grand Strategy (31 January 2006)
- America’s Most Dangerous Enemy (1 March 2006)
- Why We Lose at 4GW (4 January 2007)
- America takes another step towards the “Long War” (24 July 2007)
- One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? (28 October 2007)
- How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008)
- How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II (14 June 2008)
- America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past (30 June 2008)
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris (1 July 2008)
- America’s grand strategy, now in shambles (2 July 2008)
Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.