America: Global Ambitions and No Cash

WASHINGTON – Almost lost within the avalanche of news about more and more rescues: the banks, the auto sector, homeowners, and…welll… everybody else, (followed ominously by deeper and deeper Wall Street dives), was the announcement that the Obama administration has decided to send additional US troops to Afghanistan: 17,000 to be exact. Now, this falls short of the 30,000 additional troops requested by military commanders on the ground; but it is a nice installment. And it should not come as surprise, as Obama repeatedly indicated during the campaign that Afghanistan was and is the place we should focus on; while stating that the Bush administration had squandered resources in the misguided Iraq campaign.

The commander of the Afghanistan NATO force, US General David McKiernan, indicated that these reinforcements are welcome and badly needed, in the light of the precarious and, in fact deteriorating, security environment. And so it goes. The US has already 38,000 troops in Afghanistan. Now the additional 17,000 and probably more to come, depending in part on the draw down timetable from Iraq where we have about 140,000 troops.

And how is the rest of NATO, (that is wealthy Europe), plus assorted non NATO friends, doing in terms of deployments in Afghanistan? Not so great, in terms of numbers. The total non US force in Afghanistan comes to about 19,000, coming from 42 countries. While this is unfair, as some countries (UK, Canada, the Netherlands, France) contribute a lot more than others, let’s average this grand total. So: 19,000 divided by 42. Well, it comes to 452 soldiers per ally. Again this is not a correct representation of country by country contributions. Some allies have sent dozens, others thousands. Still the overall disproportion is immense. Soon the US shall have almost 70,000 soldiers; while the others –42 countries– do very little for a mission deemed to be important by all. Let us note that, while all countries are experiencing significant financial constraints, the Afghanistan deployments disproportion goes back quite a while. It is a matter of political will, rather than resources constraints. (No matter how messy Afghanistan is today, let’s imagine for a moment the consequences of a US decision to scale down its military commitments to the average of all the other countries who have contributed forces. Would this be a good thing for regional and global stability? More on this later).

So, we have significant new US commitments for the “good war” in Afghanistan. Still, while here in Washington we are contemplating a budget deficit that is approaching banana republic levels because of stimulus spending and assorted bail outs, how are we planning to pay for these new military deployments? 

Let’s move to another scenario. On January 10, 2009 there was the solemn and in many ways moving commissioning of the “George Herbert Walker Bush”, or CVN 77, the last Nimitz class aircraft carrier named after “Bush 41”, that is the first president Bush, father of president George W. Bush. The outgoing president “Bush 43”, his son, presided over the ceremony honoring his father just a few days before leaving office. So, the expensive “George Herbert Walker Bush” starts sailing the oceans in the year of the “Great Crisis”. This 78,000 tons nuclear powered ship, built by Northrop Grumman, with all its airplanes and helicopters and its complement of cruisers, frigates and all the rest that make up a carrier group, is the finest product of US technology, while embodying US power. Indeed, as Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter said during the ceremony: “The impact of a new carrier is global. For no other ship represents to the world the power of the United States the way this does…..” Indeed…

So, add another few billion dollars to the defense procurement bill (although stretched over a number of construction years) and, of course, from now on, the few hundreds of millions for the annual operating cost of this sailing airbase and the other vessels accompanying it, with thousands of airmen and sailors on them.

And now, the same scenario, from a different angle. Answering a reporter question on February 13, 2009, regarding the chances of buying large numbers of the (very pricey) F-22 Raptor, the new generation fighter jet, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell gave us a hint that the Defense Department is aware of the fact that money is becoming scarce and tough choices are ahead. Maybe we cannot have all the weapon systems that we want:….”….Fundamentally –Morrell said–, the Secretary [Secretary of Defense Robert Gates] is looking at the things I laid out for you, I mean, the notion that we need to make hard choices in this economic climate, we need to […] look for cost efficiencies and we need to be more joint in how we acquire…..”

So, is there a common thread in any of this? Not easy to discern one, really. The first two examples –more troops in Afghanistan, the commissioning of a brand new carrier– would indicate that America has money. The prudent reply of the Pentagon spokesman regarding future procurement of major weapon systems would indicate that, because of the fiscal crisis, there will be painful procurement cuts. 

Well, and so, what does it mean? It means that, unless we reestablish fairly quickly our economic strength, at some point trillion dollar plus deficits and a country in a deep recession will collide with global foreign policy ambitions, a huge defense budget and the desire to send around a world a powerful symbol of US might. Unless Obama is successful in leading America in an effort that will fix this mess, sooner rather than later we shall get to the point in which the superpower status and international role played by the US will be undercut by lack of money. 

Ordinarily, (that is excluding for a moment all the extraordinary federal spending just launched and its impact on federal finances and on the national debt), the Pentagon is used to taking a huge chunk of all discretionary federal spending, that is all the spending that is not committed to transfer payments such as Social Security, Medicare, etc. But, given this deep crisis of uncertain duration, how long can this last? The answer is not so simple. Allocations for national security are  a combination of available cash and the setting of policy priorities. If a country has money it can decide to have or not have significant military spending. But if a country has fewer and fewer resources then the policy choices become more limited. As the French say: “C’est l’argent qui fait la guerre“, “It is money that makes war”. And this is not to recommend war. It is simply to recognize that without money to fund a modern military that is supposed to be large enough to constitute a credible deterrent and to be effective as a policy tool when it is so decided, the US cannot continue to be a superpower.

Military spending, however misdirected and often misused, is a large component of US credibility as a world leader. Without military power or with very diminished power, who will listen to America? Well, the proponents of “soft power” would argue that there are other, indeed better, ways to influence international affairs through trade, dialogue and diplomacy. I am not so sure. The governments of the countries that send a few hundred troops or less to Afghanistan do not seriously expect to influence policy. The European Union has no military power to speak of and thus nobody pays any real attention to its proclamations.  

One school of thought about the roots of “decline” focuses on  “Imperial Overstretch”. A great power, keen on preserving its strategic global interests, starts spending too much on national defense at the expense of other productive investments. In the end, because of this underinvestment, its basic economic strength is sapped and –paradoxically– there is less capital to be allocated to defense spending. Hence the need to retreat and the loss of global status.

Well, in the case of the US it could be argued that a few years of expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have absorbed much national wealth. This is true. But, while the cost of these wars is significant, it is clear that the current serious recession is not due primarily to the cost of military adventure, however expensive. It is due to national profligacy and plain old “living beyond one’s means”.

The Obama administration wants to accomplish many things, all of them strategically important: stop the bleeding, kick start the economy through emergency packages, create a plan that will reestablish fiscal discipline and budget balance in the long term, (through a radical reform of entitlement programs), and maintain US global leadership.

This is an immense challenge. It would be great for America to accomplish all this. But it would be even better for the world if America could pull this off. Those who rejoice looking at America in big trouble should ponder what viable alternatives to US global leadership there may be. Unless people seriously believe that Europe’s “soft power”, with the attendant unwillingness and inability to support a military effort in Afghanistan with more than token troops, will provide a stronger and more effective leadership model.

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