The budget deficit for FY 2009 (which ended on September 30, 2009) was $1.42 trillion. I can hardly think of a better reason to ask the question in the title of this post. For comparison purposes, the US economy is about $14.5 trillion and its national debt is $12 trillion. South Korea’s GDP is about $900 billion. So the US borrowed 150% of the entire output of the world’s 13th largest economy. If that is not imperial decline, I don’t know what is. The day after I read that statistic, I told my Korean students they should start thinking about a post-American Korean alliance framework. The odds against us are lengthening fast.
A few months ago, the US general in Afghanistan said we are losing there. And that seems to be the general consensus. This happened in Iraq too from 2004 – 2007, and in Vietnam after Tet. In the Iraqi case we pulled off something like a miracle with the surge and tribal awakening against al Qaeda. Although the best authority on Iraq says we are worse there than we think, at least we aren’t calling it the ‘forever war’ or a ‘fiasco’ anymore. In Vietnam of course, things went less well. Despite the changes at the top (Clark Clifford, Creighton Abrams, then the Nixon administration), we could not pull the South back from the brink, and by 1975, we had effectively lost.
So my question is why would a great power like the US give up, one possible option in the current greater ME mess? Clearly the US has huge resources, greater than North Vietnam & the VC, al Qaeda in Iraq, or the Taliban. (Remember that the Iraq Study Group recommended in the fall of 2006 that we gradually withdraw – effectively giving up. Nor is it likely that we are willing to plunge back into Iraq in huge force if things go badly in the next 2 years, during the final withdrawal.) And we have seen other great powers give up and leave/lose before too: the USSR in Afghanistan, France in Algeria, and lots of the postcolonial struggles. This is a great dissertation waiting to be written. Here are a few thoughts, all directly relevant to the medium-term US presence in the GME.
1. Wars, like any other enterprise, involve a cost-benefit analysis. Sullivan makes quite clear just how high the costs of the GWoT really are, and how little we have accomplished. It is painful reading. But by any reasonable assessment, the costs of the ME to the US are skyrocketing and look only to increase for all sorts of reasons (continuing Israeli intransigence, Iran’s nuclear sprint, the $1 trillion price tag on McChrystal’s plan). The unprecedented size of the budget deficit, and level of borrowing necessary to continue the ME wars, makes the cost-benefit question far more relevant than I have seen in the Afghanistan surge debate in the last few months. Too much of the debate has focused on Obama’s backbone or channeled ‘Americans-don’t-lose-wars’ nationalism. Far too little focuses on the extreme lack of resources.
2. We learned from Vietnam that losing a war isn’t so bad after all. All the predictions of the 1970s about coming of multipolarity, the end of the Cold War, the rise of the third world, and American decline were wrong. The US has tremendous power reserves. A strategic retrenchment will not diminish them. Most of the world will still expect US military power to dominate major power crises; most of the world will still value US market access above all trading relationships. Leaving the ME is not the fall of the Roman Empire.
3. Extended wars are domestically destabilizing and liberalism-reducing. This is a brutally obvious lesson from democracies in extended wars or standoffs. Israel and South Korea have done reasonably well in reconciling the nationalism and militarism demanded in such competitions, with the liberalism and social tolerance we expect from democracies. But the nominal, might-have-been democracies of Pakistan and South Vietnam were simply destroyed by unrelenting external confrontation.
4. Small wars that become big endanger other, more critical international commitments. Here is another Vietnam lesson. The drain of Vietnam began to seriously endanger America’s more central needs in Western Europe and Northeast Asia; this is major reason why we gave up. Today, the 3 trillion dollar GWoT is sapping America’s ability to hold the line in places of much greater importance. While Europe is not threatened (Russia somewhat in the east), East Asia is witnessing a major power shift. It’s hard to argue that Asia’s rise is not of far greater importance to the US than the enduring primitivism of ME. The US is not balancing China right now, but it is awful nervous about the future of Chinese power, and you can be sure the Chinese relish watching the US lose its bearings (torture) in the ME.