Thursday, March 23, 2006

The marginal costs of war

It used to be that when a country went to war--any kind of country--it required the mobilization of a significant amount of resources from a very large portion of it's population.  In the case of an offensive war, this was the case because you had to send in enough people, with enough bullets (or swords) and enough food to A. kill the other people, and B. hold their land long enough to convince them to give up.  In the case of a defensive war, your population was mobilized to defend itself against an invading army.  Neither of these things were decisions made out of caprice, and neither could be effectively pursued without the backing--or at least capitulation--of a large portion of the population.
This is no longer the prevailing situation of war.  At least not for the United States.  We've invested so much of our national productive capability into designing better bombs, better guns, smarter planes, and training better warriors--in short we have achieved such an expensive (and effective) fighting force, that fighting wars has become cheap. 
The U.S. can pursue operations, skirmishes, battles, campaigns, and even full-blown wars, with the fighting force it has on a day-to-day basis.  We don't have to mobilize new resources.  We don't have to ask society to bear a burden or, really, notice much of a change.  Unless they have loved ones fighting, or they feel a sense of need to pay attention to what is happening.  Most Americans, sadly, have neither in today's conflict.
This leads to a bigger challenge when we recognize that no army can fight the U.S. No navy can challenge ours for supremacy of the seas.  Our country faces no credible risk of an air assault that will significantly impact the continental United States.  In short, we've become so powerful that only the weak, the marginalized, and the desperate can attack us.
The world no longer suffers from a Bismarkian balance-of-powers system.  We no longer have an on-par rival in the Soviet Union.  Those traditional actors who wish to pursue some geo-political strategy against the United States no they can only fail in challenging us militarily.  Enter terrorism.
Present-day terrorists benefit from a century of anti-colonial powers honing their guerilla tactics combined the best-practices of 60 years of fortune-500 multi-national corporations.  They exploit comparative advantages they see in their market niches: instability, dissaffectedness, and those unwilling or unable to integrate into a globalized marketplace.
Of greater importance is the fact that the United States has nearly no options for dealing with another terrorist attack.  The first one was easy: al Qaida is based in Afghanistan, if we invade Afghanistan, we eliminate their headquarters.  The next attack will not be so easy.  Terrorism, almost by definition, involves the acts of a sub-set of a minority.  It is a tiny percentage of any population who is willing to do the types of things that the 9/11 hijackers did, or Hezbollah suicide bombers do.  Their actions may impact a few lives, or a few dozen, or tens of thousands.  But in a country the size of the U.S., few of us are likely to be directly impacted by their actions--just as few of us had more than a peripheral real connection to the events of 9/11. (Real is different than emotional, compassionate, or psychological connection.)
But if the U.S. responds to the next act of terrorism on U.S. soil in a similar method to the last one, we will likely have an enormous impact on an entire population.  If, for example, the United States was attacked by terrorists who had lived or trained in Iran (with or without consent of Iran's government) it is conceivable that the U.S. would invade, much as we did to Afghanistan, and set up our own government. 
Except we tried that in Iran once before.  It's utter disregard for the wishes of the Iranian people is what led to the Iran-hostage situation in 1979-1981.  A whole generations of Iranians, which many signs indicate are starting to come around to the U.S.--even if they're leaders aren't--would likely rally against the invader, and the U.S. would set back stability and prosperity in the country for yet another generation.
In an effort to get to the point, the methods and the means of conducting war--who conducts it, who is responsible, and who bears the burdens--have changed significantly in the past 30 years.  In becoming a superpower bar-none, the U.S. has also radically transformed the nature of threats it must face.  Until policy-makers recognize this new type of threat and devise responses appropriate to the circumstances, U.S. response to actions against it will only make the U.S. worse off.

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