No coins, no COIN

Introduction:  It is important that move beyond the panic “oh my god” stage, and consider what these events mean for America.  On one hand, recessions are not Armeggedon, but part of the normal business cycle. The economy must both inhale and exhale. Let’s not be like the fictional savages, who each winter worry that the days will continue to shorten – and that Spring will never come.  On the other hand, this process is probably a major turning point for America. Difficult times force changes, not all of them welcome.

Summary:  The US military is structurally — in both doctrine and material — a global instrument by which a hegemonic power projects force on a global scale.  The time approaches when that will have to change.

The end of the post-world war II era will have many consequences.  Among them will be the end of American exceptionalism.  By that I do not mean that America will not be beacon of freedom and justice, nor that others will no longer model their societies on our best aspects.  Neither is a unusual phenomenon in history, hence not exceptional.

The most exceptional aspect of American political behavior is the belief that we need not count the costs of national greatness.  Not for social policy, and esp. not for foreign wars.  Look through the literature, such as

  • the speeches of John McCain, one of our leading advocates of national greatness, 
  • the hundreds of papers in the Counterinsurgency Library,
  • the thousands of articles on the Small Wars Council.

In most of these money is no object in the pursuit of security (or other goals, often quite chimerical).  That is an exceptional way of thinking.  More so when one considers how our current account deficit has steadily increased since 1971 (when we went off the gold standard) — and the even more rapid increase in the foreign debts that finances the annual deficit.

That era will close soon, and the United States will return to earth.  Like everyone else, we will have to consider what foreign adventures we can afford before starting them — weighing their costs and benefits — and stop wars whose costs spiral out of control.  This will force a military revolution more profound than any since WWII, when we entered the “money is no object” era for weapons and foreign wars.  

Not that the annual budget wars were not fought fiercely, but they will be conducted differently once budgets start their rapid and long-term decline.  Like any organization thrust into radically changed environment, restructuring — drastic changes in structure and doctrine — will be needed.

Maritime, air, and land — our approach to all will change.  Maintaining full-scale forces against purely theoretical future threats will become impossible.  Seeking dominance in every theater will become unrealistic.  Prioritization will become imperative.

Wars on land

Consider just land operations.  The battle rages between preparation for massive conventional combat and counter-insurgency operations.  The first is hideously expensive. 

  • Foreign bases from which to project power. 
  • The massive armored, amphibious, and airborne “fist.” 
  • The large support “tail.” 
  • And the large numbers of trained people required.

As we have learned in Iraq, counter-insurgency operations are also incredibly expensive.  A small war by most standards — except for the cost.  The government has carefully avoided public accounting, but most estimates of the full cost range from $1 – $2 trillion (including future costs for replacing the worn equipment, financing the debt and personnel benefits).

Like the UK after WWII, bean counters will play a large role in setting our national strategy.  Every foreign base, foreign operation, and foreign war requires foreign exchange.  An outflow of currency from the US, which must be borrowed or earned through trade.  With our national VISA card max’d out, we will need watch every foreign expenditure.

This is the opposite of our current practice.  For example, how many articles about Afghanistan weigh the costs and benefits as a guide to our actions there?  More typical is “analysis” which says that “we must” wage war there, otherwise unacceptable things will result.  A viewpoint only for children and soon-to-be bankrupts.

Paul Kennedy explained all this years ago, but we did not listen

The ur-text for this is Paul Kennedy’s great work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987).  From the Introduction:

The relative strengths of the leading nations in world affairs never remain constant, principally because of the uneven rate of growth among different societies … It sounds crudely mercantilistic to express it this way, but wealth is usually needed to underpin military power … If, however, too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes, then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term.

In the same way, if a state overextends itself strategically — by, say, the conquest of extensive territories or the waging of costly wars — it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all — a dilemma which becomes acute if the nation concerned has entered a period of relative economic decline.

Let’s act now, while there is still time

The combination of ruinous foreign spending and rapid debt accumulation has several likely endings if not arrested soon. 

Either our creditors force cuts, perhaps (as the US has done to other nations through its proxies in the IMF) highly specific line-item cuts in government expenditures. 

Or our debts increase until the interest charges begin to accelerate, the debtors “death spiral.”

Neither course leads to national security.  Let’s hope we act quickly on this insight, least it be a an “end time” insight.

“When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known.  The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.”

Preface to “Philosophy of Right” by G.W.F. Hegel, 1820

Update

For brief but valuable analysis of this, esp putting it in the context of past DoD programs and Secretary Gate’s speeches, see this post at Opposed System Design.

Afterword

If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these, such as the causes of the present crisis.  I have been writing about these events for several years; since November 2007 on this site.  As you will see explained in these posts, the magnitude of the events now happening is beyond what most Americans have — or can — imagine.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

A related question concerns 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.

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007
  6. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008
  7. America needs a Foreign Legion , 18 April 2008
  8. Militia – the ultimate defense against 4GW  , original September 2005; revised 30 May 2008
  9. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I , 19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008
  10. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II , 14 June 2008
  11. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  12. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  13. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  14. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  15. Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW , 8 July 2008 – chapter 5
  16. The world seen through the lens of 4GW (this gives a clearer picture) , (10 July 2008 — chapter 8
  17. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus , 11 August 2008

21 thoughts on “No coins, no COIN

  1. “That era will close soon, and the United States will return to earth.”

    But that was Kennedy’s point: that imperial powers are motivated by many, often conflicting, imperatives, and often the most critical are ignored because they don’t “fit” with what the leaders of the Great Power believe to be true. So a Spain can continue to pursue endless military adventures through the 16th and 17th centuries, until long after her treasury is drained and her economy vitiated. Britian, who in any sensible world would have begun divesting herself of her foregn dominions after WW1 tries to cling to them into the late 40’s and 50’s not because it makes economic, military or political sense, but because people like Winston Churchill don’t want to be the ones who “gave the Empire away”…

    So – in a rational world, yes. Our nation would look clear-eyed at the costs versus the benefits of doing business in the old way and reorganize and reconstruct our geopolitical and military strategy. But this is the nation that appears to think that importing men, shells and concertina wire to central Asia to slay tribal warriors is a sensible approach to national security.

    I sould say that the chances of this happening are about equal to the American public’s realizing how conned they have been economically – that is, about 1%. The more likely scenario, IMO, is that we will continue out imperial overstretch, borrowing and spending our way into desuetude, declining until we have become a second-rate power before we know it. I don’t know who will be the Britain to our Spain or the U.S. to our Britain…only that we will be unlikely to recognize our relative positions until we get a nasty smack on the nose.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: As I have said several times in the past few weeks, I doubt that we will be able to borrow the sums necessary to achieve ruin in your scenario. Our national VISA card does not have an unlimited line of credit, as you and most Americans appear to believe.

  2. As for now very few has made that connection you make. The Danish minister of defence recently told the press that he expected the Danish soldiers to be in Helmand in Afghanistan for at least ten more years. Nobody speaks about Imperial Overstretch over here. Which is a problem, since this means we don’t prepare for that option that the United States might suddenly withdraw and what to do with our 600 soldiers in Afghanistan. Not to mention the British or the Canadian troops.

    The question is no longer if the American superpower era will end, but when and how. Right now the United States is like a large air plane that has run out of fuel, but will keep flying for some time before it descends. Can the new American president make a gentle withdrawal (the British option) or will there be a sudden crash (the Soviet option)? In many ways the United States is in a far worse situation than the Soviet Union was in 1989-1991. The United States – along side their remaining allies – are fighting a hot war in Iraq and Afghanistan, a creeping hot war inside Pakistan and globally speaking a hot global war against terror (GWOT). Not to mention the possibility of a conflict (cold war or not so cold war) with Russia and (more unlikely) China. Say what you might say about the Soviet leadership, but they did the world a favor by withdrawing without firing a shot from Eastern Europe, make arms agreement and creating a positive international climate twenty years ago. There was only a remote possibility of an armed conflict when the Berlin Wall fell, which is extraordinary. Very few empires fall without a serious fight. The situation is far worse today and if the United States are forced to withdraw the will do under intense fire from anyone carrying a gun. From Iraq to Afghanistan.

    Besides that: Have you seen any signs of social unrest in the United States? There is an article in Army Times telling us that a brigade under the 3th Inf. Div. is being put under the command of Northcom to train for emergencies inside the United States. Just routine?

  3. As stated earlier, I think we have an opportunity to make money selling vassals by leveraging the emotional attachments of the buyers… this is the most intelligent way to proceed and a very fitting legacy for this particular empire.

    I would not be surprised if there were troops training with the idea of maintaining order after an economic crash when people start stealing and rioting to stay alive. This has some probability greater than zero although it may be small… one factor is if the supplies of psychological medications are interrupted or not. I imagine they would have put John Brown, for example, on Prozac in the 1840’s at the latest.

    If, somehow, McCain loses the popular vote by millions but somehow ekes a tainted Electoral College victory out, meaning that Palin is VP, you might see some serious fireworks here, though…

  4. An unexplored topic: With all of the outsourcing in the military going on, to what extent will military operations be gummed up because various defense contractors – in particular those providing logistics – should experience financial difficulties?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Why should they experience problems? Nice steady customer who pays cash (no need to factor receivables), big margins… DoD’s vendors should be in steady shape unless the Defense budget is severely cut, and our foreign wars ended.

  5. As an Italian I understand very well the point Fabius has presented. Italy is by no means a superpower (neither a mini power ;) ) but it has the second largest debt in the world.

    With 104% of GDP debt you have no money for defence. No bullets even for training recruits. I think that you don’t really know what it’s like to live with a super debt.

    Our defense spending is something ridiculous and we have great problems in any operational aspect of our military force. But: we have tons of generals and a fully functioning military bureaucracy. If Fabius thinks that low budget forces rationalization he could be very surprised.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: A low budget forces spending less. We can only hope that it drives rational thought about our defense policy and expenditures!

  6. Why should they experience problems?

    Credit crunch. Shaky internal controls. Unreliable subcontractors. Screwed up JIT. Somebody on this blog already posted a note about how shippers are unable to obtain letters of credit. I would assume that would include spare parts for tanks.

    The point is not this I have a concise answer but rather that nobody – including the Pentagon – really knows.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: All valid points. My point was that DoD’s vendors have a relative advantage vs. the rest of the private sector.

    We will be resetting the clocks to 1932 if the credit system is not restarted soon. That must be done, stat. If it is not then these details will not matter much.

  7. Fabius,

    Great column, just finished reading Andy Bacevich’s Limits of Power. You must put that with other great books on what the problem is.

    Don
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    Fabius Maximus replies: All I have seen are the excerpts at TomDispatch, which I have excerpted here, here, and here. They are excellent, and I look forward to reading the full book.

  8. Robert Peterson
    Besides that: Have you seen any signs of social unrest in the United States? There is an article in Army Times telling us that a brigade under the 3th Inf. Div. is being put under the command of Northcom to train for emergencies inside the United States. Just routine?

    No socil unrest yet but it is obvious that the Bush administration is concerned about the possibility. They’ve also got a brigade of the 81st and a Medical Brigade in the same program. I sincerely hope that they are over-reacting but obviously we can’t know everything the top leadership knows.

  9. A great note in the WSJ about the End of an Era. A key point is that the taxes plus regulations of America means fewer companies will be investing in the US.

    On the other hand, the ‘nation-building’ part of COINS seems to be what has been most expensive. Had we gone in, overthrown Saddam, let the Iraqis elect whichever leaders they wanted, and left before they started fighting each other (unrealistic for Bush, I know), it could have been far cheaper. 4% of the US economy is not such a huge %, but it will be under pressure.

    They also have a note on short lived Euro gloating over America’s problems.

  10. “Either our creditors force cuts, perhaps (as the US has done to other nations through its proxies in the IMF) highly specific line-item cuts in government expenditures.”

    Who’s to say our creditors will force cuts in our military spnding? They may be more concerned about the $53 trillion in unfunded liabilities represented by future payments of Social Security and Medicare. Our Middle Eastern creditors certainly enjoy the money DoD pumps into their sheikdoms. Maybe middle class entitlements will be the first to be curtailed.

  11. If we have no coins, and must contract our military obligations, we bring them home to rising unemployment. Whatever will we do with them?

    According to the Army Times, a full brigade of our army has been posted within our borders on a “dwell-time” and “enduring” mission: “Brigade homeland tours start Oct. 1“, Army Times — “3rd Infantry’s 1st BCT trains for a new dwell-time mission. Helping ‘people at home’ may become a permanent part of the active Army”.

    It is being pitched as a response team for natural disasters — although I thought we already have (or had) the various Guards & FEMA for that set of duties. In addition, these soldiers were trained in crowd control using the new “first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded” as they “train for their new homeland mission”.

    There have been hints that this “package” includes the pain ray, but definitely includes tasering, which will be helpful in crowd control efforts (just one of the “dwell-time” aspects to this mission). Just ask Colonel Cloutier, who said “I was the first guy in the brigade to get Tasered”. You know, the really pleasant thing about getting tasered is that, having learned that it didn’t kill you the first time, you won’t be too reluctant to use it on someone else.

    I am wondering if anyone else is asking themselves about the longer-term meaning of this change. Any input from other readers or FM? Could be I’m being too paranoid, and frankly, that’s the answer I want to hear.

    note: the article now bears a correction at the bottom — a correction which is almost more interesting than the article itself

  12. “VISA card does not have an unlimited line of credit, as you and most Americans appear to believe.”

    It doesn’t have to be unlimited – just $10 more than the U.S. treasury can repay. The Lombards and Rothschilds thought that the Spanish treasury was a safe bet, too – until long AFTER it wasn’t. I’m hardly questioning the time limit on Uncle Feng’s checkbook – only that people commonly overestimate the return and underestimate the risk. And then suddenly you’re Italy with a debt of 104% of your GDP.

  13. Regarding gummed up military operations, consider the following:

    The American military faces a growing threat of potentially fatal equipment failure—and even foreign espionage—because of counterfeit computer components used in warplanes, ships, and communication networks. Fake microchips flow from unruly bazaars in rural China to dubious kitchen-table brokers in the U.S. and into complex weapons. Senior Pentagon officials publicly play down the danger, but government documents, as well as interviews with insiders, suggest possible connections between phony parts and breakdowns.

    If we should face total economic meltdown, then of course this sort of issue would be moot, but if we somehow muddle through, then expect more of this sort of thing as military contractors cut corners.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I have been reading articles like that for 20 years, and I suspect the problem of substandard equipment goes back in time to the 19th century. Is there any evidence that it is growing worse?

  14. Robert Petersen commnet: “Can the new American president make a gentle withdrawal (the British option) or will there be a sudden crash (the Soviet option)?”

    Great Britain is certainly not a good example for a “gentle withdrawal”: it engaged in protracted, bloody campaigns in the waning days of its empire in Malaysia, Yemen, Kenya; it attempted a full-scale hold-out action in Egypt (Suez expedition); it resisted during decades the independence of India; and it was still clinging ferociously to its colonial confettis as late as the 1980s (Falklands war).

    So did other powers:
    * France fought in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt (Suez), Madagascar, Indochina, was more than reluctant to let Syria and Lebanon go, but let its other African colonies access to independence peacefully.
    * Portugal fought fiercely in all its African colonies after being kicked out militarily from its Indian enclaves, suddenly abandoned Timor to decades of a new occupation by Indonesia, and returned Macao to China according a scheduled, well-prepared process.
    * The Netherlands attempted to keep Indonesia by force, but let Suriname go without fuss.
    * The entire Belgian colonial realm collapsed, but the Belgians made sure to ruin the independence of Congo (e.g. assassination of Lumumba).
    * Spain did not let Western Sahara go entirely without fighting (Ifni war), but granted Equatorial Guinea independence more or less willingly.
    * The Soviet Union did crash, but the Moldavian and Chechen (and Tajik, and Georgian) populations might have another viewpoint as to whether the Russians let it go softly.

    So historically, no power has let its entire empire go gently; some parts might have been just left alone without much fuss, but many others experienced either a long, bloody extrication or a sudden, nasty, bloody separation.

    It is easy to imagine that a similar process will occur in the case of the USA — say quietly leaving Djibouti or the United Arab Emirates, abruptly letting South Koreans and Afghans to fend for themselves, and fighting till final defeat to keep Kuwait and Saudi Arabia under control.

  15. Fabius Maximus replies: I have been reading articles like that for 20 years, and I suspect the problem of substandard equipment goes back in time to the 19th century. Is there any evidence that it is growing worse?

    You might want to read up on the Forty Thieves,” a set of 40 poorly constructed 74-gun ships-of-the-line that plagued Britain’s Napoleonic era navy. One of the Patrick O’Brien novels has Aubrey in command of one of these.

    Of course I don’t have any evidence that this is growing worse; this crisis is only a few weeks’ old.

  16. EC : “… but the Belgians made sure to ruin the independence of the Congo (e.g. assassination of Lumumba).

    I didn’t know any of this. Where did you get your sources, pray tell?

  17. EC : “… but the Belgians made sure to ruin the independence of the Congo (e.g. assassination of Lumumba).

    Yours Truly: I didn’t know any of this. Where did you get your sources, pray tell?

    Ludo De Witte: The assassination of Lumumba, 1999.

    Chambre des représentants de Belgique: Commission d´enquête parlementaire chargée de déterminer les circonstances exactes de l´assassinat de Patrice Lumumba et l´implication éventuelle des responsables politiques belges dans celui-ci, 2001. http://www.lachambre.be/kvvcr/showpage.cfm?section=%7Ccomm%7Clmb&language=fr&story=lmb.xml&rightmenu=right_publications

    Jacques Brassinne de la Buissière: Enquête sur la mort de Lumumba, PhD, 1991. http://www.brassinnedelabuissiere-lumumba.be/

  18. Update: two articles discuss this theory.

    (1) “Liquidating the Empire“, Patrick J. Buchanan, posted at Antiwar.com, 14 October 2009 — Excerpt:

    “Uncle Sam’s Visa card is about to be stamped ‘Canceled.’ The budget is going to have to go under the knife. But what gets cut?

    “Social Security and Medicare are surely exempt. Seniors have already taken a huge hit in their 401(k)s. And as the Democrats are crafting another $150 billion stimulus package for the working poor and middle class, Medicaid and food stamps are untouchable. Interest on the debt cannot be cut. It is going up. Will a Democratic Congress slash unemployment benefits, welfare, education, student loans, veterans benefits – in a recession?

    “No way. Yet, that is almost the entire U.S. budget – except for defense, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and foreign aid. And this is where the ax will eventually fall.

    “It is the American Empire that is going to be liquidated.”

    (2) “Is this the end of the American era?“, Paul Kennedy, The Times, 12 October 2008 — Excerpt:

    “The American republic, like the feckless kings of Bourbon France, has not been able to pay its way in the world from its own resources. For years the federal government’s expenditures have far exceeded its revenues. Each month that horrible gap has been covered only by the sale of treasury bonds (five-year, 10-year, 30-year promises to repay), chiefly to foreigners, chiefly nowadays to Asian governments and banks.

    “What is more, Congress has signed on to the $700 billion financial aid package for Wall Street without any of its members – so far as I can tell – asking how that terrifying sum is to be paid for. Or, rather, who picks up the tab. Well, it is to be paid for, ultimately, by future generations of US taxpayers. But it will be paid for right now by borrowing from foreigners. If, that is, they will pay for such dodgy assets. But will they and for how long?

    “Just as China, along with India, Russia and Brazil, welcomes the return of a multipolar system for the conduct of great power diplomacy, so also – and almost exactly in step – come the pressures to move away from the unipolar dollar-based global currency system to a more mixed basket of currency holdings. The People’s Daily in Beijing recently allowed Shi Jianxun, the notable Chinese economist, to call for “a diversified currency and financial system and [a] fair and just financial order that is not dependent on the United States”.

    “This shift will be gradual but unrelenting. Most 18th-century merchants preferred to trade in Austria’s Maria Theresa dollars. One hundred years later their currency of choice was the pound sterling and after another century it was $100 bills. Currencies move on, usually a little ahead of the great powers themselves.

    “… If that happens, further cracks will start to appear in the American imperial edifice. They will be patched up by congressional and presidential plasterwork in a desperate effort to keep this gigantic, alarmingly unbalanced road show on the tracks for a few more years at least. But the inner fissures will be there.”

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