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.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
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.
15 thoughts on “America’s grand strategy, insanity at work”
Fab Max…We’re obediently & tightly ready to be your bounty O’ war. Take proverbial Us.
Also consider how much fuel is being used by the forces. Doesn’t that make the USA a ‘petroleum exporter?”
I always used to believe, that the great strenght of the American democracy was its ability to correct itself. To cleanse itself. I am just old enough to remember the Iran-Contra hearings and how Oliver North was put on trial. I believed something similar would happened after the invasion of Iraq and when the faked reasons for going to war were exposed.
Instead there was just silence. The Washington Post and The New York Times belatedly excused their mistakes regarding the Iraqi WMD’ø, but the men in power never apologized. Nobody in the American mainstream media reacted when the Downing Street memo was revealed. I could say the same of torture, of the renditions, of the secret psywar against Iran and so on. As far as I can tell the American democracy has become dysfunctional, the media doesn’t care and the public more concerned about Britney without panties than about CIA-torture.
To their credit the Americans voted for change back in 2006, but the real tragedy is that there is simply no alternative. While the democrats might be critical of Bush they don’t really offer anything new. Basically they agree with Bush on many issues and therefore they don’t intend to change anything. Even though that might mean bankruptcy in the end for the USA.
It is important to understand that any ideas for a grand strategy is meaningless in that atmosphere. Any idea would only be considered useful if it could further special interest. Is there a insurgency growing just south of Rio Grande and waged by powerful drug cartels? Well, sorry – thats not as important for the American National Security as defending the United States against ICBM’s launched by Switzerland or Sweden (please remember both countries considered developing nukes in the past). It would not matter if the United States was a small country, but the whole western world depends on the United States. If the USA goes down the West will go down.
“If the USA goes down the West will go down.”
A) If the USA were to lose political and economic control due to hyperinflation, resulting in mass starvation, deserting soldiers, deserting cops … then the whole world economy might implode.
B) The U.S. might become a banana republic with a ridiculous Gini coefficient, but some semblance of a functioning economy.
C) If the U.S. merely suspended all civil liberties and kept the serfs supplied with television and 1000 calories per day, the world economy might not even notice, but the U.S. economy would be “burnt toast.”
I think at this point it’s a question of economic grand strategy, not military/political grand strategy. China, Russia, Brazil, etc. are willing to do a LOT to avoid scenario A.
If the USA goes down the West will go down.
Comment to Yorksranter:
The great tragedy of the United States is that it betrayed the values of which it went to war in WW1 and WW2. Believe me – as son of a Polish mother I know we have a lot to be thankful for. But for the same reason it pains me to hear stories about criminal and illegal wars, secret wars, renditions and torture.
Even if the West survives – in what shape? Will the EU be prepared to stand up for our values? Would Germany? Would the British? I am sceptical. Europeans have been profundly demoralised by two world wars and are not willing to fight anymore. Not that I mind. I hate the idea of war for its own sake and for building an empire, but it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes war is really the only answer.
Already the Russians are on the move again. They are weak now, but what about in ten years? Or twenty?
Fabius Maximus replies: You raise many good points in these two comments. I will discuss Russia in a later chapter of this series. As for America, I suggest reading some of there articles. All great nations are vast hidden sources of strength. America’s are esp large, residing in its people (not its elites).
Rather than deliberate what sort of grand strategy the United States, qua the United States, should have, would it not make more sense to consider what sort of Grand Strategy under any circumstances might be possible and then figure out how to fit the United States into that picture.
Perhaps the United States, today, is too ossified, corrupt, senile, or whatever; but – to use an absurd example – perhaps the Rotary Club could get things done. So forget about the United States; think Rotary. And then figure out what to do about the United States later.
Fabius Maximus replies: I would like to see someone attempt to sketch out something like this. IMO a grand strategy for a nation can only be implemented by its government. I doubt that the US government is too “ossified, corrupt, senile, or whatever”, so that a reasonable grand strategy cannot be implemented.
IMO a grand strategy for a nation can only be implemented by its government.
Agreed. And that’s the problem if one assumes that the nation-state is becoming outdated.
But let me re-state my postion ( upon further reflection ). First, let us suppose our grand strategy should be to ensure that six-year olds get big red bicycles. That would fix everything. Then, who can do this. Rotary? DisneyWorld? Municipal governments? The Commerce Dept? UNICEF?
Unless it’s the Commerce Dept? – and there is no a priori reason to suppose that it would be – then using the nation state as our frame of reference would be problematical.
Fabius Maximus replies: Many things become possible when looking over sufficiently long time horizons. However, in the here and now the nation-state remains the dominant form of social organization. Announcements of its death — mis-readings of van Creveld’s work, I suspect — seem premature.
The neoconservatives did have a grand strategy. It was arrogant and possibly implausible (the idea of converting the entire ME to democracy and open markets) but not insane. If democracy talk was just rhetoric masking a simpler goal — control of ME oil — that goal was certainly not insane, especially for the country that was at that time the global military behemoth.
There is a core of sanity in the neo-con policy, or there would have been more explicit and stronger opposition to it. By a core of sanity, I mean a goal that makes sense to a wide range of financial and corporate interests in the US today (and not excluding our Atlantic partners.)
If it is axiomatic that no country voluntarily gives up its standard of living (or rather, that no politician can be seen to be advocating that), then what other “grand strategy” could we have followed?
As the Democrats like to say, the fault was in the execution, not the goals. Even though I heartily disagree with this, I’m afraid that’s the policy we’re going to have to live with.
Fabius Maximus replies: I never said the neocons did not have a strategy — just an insane strategy. Which is, as you note, rhetoric rather than a precise description. What seem to be the primary goals — bases from which to project power, and access by US companies to Iraq oil on favorable terms — were certainly hard-headed and worldly goals.
If the neocon policy WAS hard-headed and wordly, is it possible that ten years from now we we will have forgotten the carnage and waste of the war, and US military presence in the ME will be a consensus piece of US policy?
I can imagine this result, while at the same time imagining that Russia and Iran will have outflanked us, or at least stalemated us in the “grand game”.
“First, let us suppose our grand strategy should be to ensure that six-year olds get big red bicycles. That would fix everything. Then, who can do this. Rotary? DisneyWorld? Municipal governments? The Commerce Dept?”
Bill Gates could make a few phone calls and spend $40 billion in an afternoon. $40 billion would buy a *lot* of bicycles, even without bulk discounts. Billy G has enough secretaries to make sure the bikes get distributed.
The ultra-rich have more real power than most nation-states. Ultra-rich individuals already have very big strategies, but perhaps they don’t qualify as “grand strategies.”
Fabius Maximus replies: I disagree, depneding on what you man by “most.” Bill Gates’ wealth is tiny vs. most states (although the wealth of states is difficult to measure). More importantly, his income is small vs. most states.
See Wikipedia entry on Bill Gates: net worth is aprox $60 billion. So he could spend $40 B in an afternoon, once.
See the CIA factbook list of spending by governments. Assuming Gates’ income averages 5% of his net worth (arbitrary), that puts him aprox #107 in spending.
However, in the here and now the nation-state remains the dominant form of social organization. Announcements of its death — mis-readings of van Creveld’s work, I suspect — seem premature.
Which I why I previously stated that irony should become an increasingly prominent element in our political discourse.
Do not blame van Creveld for my heresies; I am responsible for my own mistakes.
Fabius Maximus replies: Agree, irony is an important element in political discourse. Irony — awareness of the distinction between what should be and what is — divides the ancient world from the modern. The ancients believed that the division was fixed; irony, detachment, and resignation the major viewpoints. The moderns (following Machiavelli) believe that this gap can be overcome. Engagement amd seriousness are therefore the orders of the day.
This is surprisingly similar to what Umair Haque talks about: the grand strategy determines the effectiveness of the forces fighting the daily struggles.
How about doing a Google by moving beyond lip service and actually implementing “Do no evil” as the Grand Strategy?
Fabius Maximus replies: Per Wikipedia, Umair Haque “is a specialist for the digital media economy emerging with “Web 2.0” services and practices, in a comprehensive Powerpoint-presentation titled “The New Economics od Media. Micromedia, Connected Consumption, and the Snowball Effect” (2005).” It points to the website “BubbleOpengeneration – Strategies for a discontinuous future“.
Umair Haque is more than that Wikipedia page makes him out to be. Look at Haque’s Harvard Business site. The following five entries are great places to start. The comments, like here, usually reward the time and energy you spend reading or contributing.
Democracy in the Middle East is the ONLY plausible strategy for long term peace.
Every other goal results* in more expensive wars later.
Looking at military costs, then imagining how much better the US could be if you were dictator is fun, but silly:
(a trillion dollars could have rebuilt our energy infrastructure).
Please — check out how many Fed billions were given to the state of LA, for infrastructure, etc., but the cash was NOT spent (by the Dem Gov. and Dem Mayor of NO) to protect against disasters.
Comparing one reality with an unrealistic ‘could have been’ is silly, commie style fantasy.
*according to my probabilistic estimates on the future. Without invasion in 2003, sanctions end after 2004 (90%), Saddam and Iran race for nukes, by 2010 one has them (90%). Saddam restarts the programs he shut down, which passed the Blix inspections.
Today, it is 100% certain that Saddam won’t have nukes. It’s still looking like 40% or more that Iran will, by 2010.
Fabius Maximus replies: Is this guessing, or from the psychic hotline?
What is the significance of saying “Democracy in the Middle East is the ONLY plausible strategy for long term peace.” Aside of its speculative nature (The NAZI regime was both elected and very popular — as was the war), what can we to further democracy — other than prayer?