Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Eating Soup with a Sieve

Robert Farley has a new article up at World Politics Review about his thoughts on the coming Department of Defense budget circus:
"Perhaps the most important takeaway from the white paper is the official recognition that the size of the defense budget itself represents a threat to U.S. national security."
says Farley,
"In theory, this should not be such a remarkable insight; one common narrative explaining the end of the Cold War is that the United States drove the Soviet Union to economic ruin by forcing it to maintain an unsustainable military budget. As Bernard Finel suggests, the United States has now committed itself to a degree of dominance over potential rivals that may be unsustainable in the long run, and that in and of itself poses risks."
Well enough. But I don't know if he has thought this through far enough.


First, I think he's giving the flacks too much credit - simply saying this will happen is far from a guarantee that it WILL happen. Military overstretch is nearly universal in the decline phase of imperia; almost the first symptom of post-vitality in a large or imperial polity is an excessive amount of revenue devoted into military forces and a decreasing return from that "investment".

That is; as empires first grow they often find that war "pays for itself". Imperial troops extend the borders, bringing home slaves and tribute, incorporating rich lands and peoples into the empire. This wealth then translates into more, better-equipped forces, which are more effective against the barbarians, bringing more people and more wealth into the empire. Wash, rinse, repeat.

But over time the combination of imperial social and political arteriosclerosis, bloated elites devoted to their own interests at the expense of the common good, and the vicious effects - on both imperials and colonials - of ruling the subject populations reduces the gains and expands the costs. Subsequent rulers desperately try and find ways to reduce these costs, only to find that in armies, in in every organization, what begins as a relatively lean, cost-effective organization over time becomes overstuffed with useless dunnage that contributes little, if anything, to the actual business of warfighting.

But, second, it is difficult or even impossible to reverse this without immense outlays of political prestige and will. I cannot think of a historical example of an empire that voluntarily restructured its armed forces, in a short time, as the result of a deliberate serious analysis of its geopolitical interests. The Marian Reforms? Except they were more-or-less purely organizational. The conversion of the U.S. to a global superpower in 1945? Helped that just at the moment we had the world's largest army, navy, air force, and a nuke or three lying around.

I'm not sating it can't be done - just that it's damn deadly difficult and the successful examples are so few I can't think of any, And throw in the toxic political environment of the 201s United States? It seems beyond unlikely; it is likely to be absolutely impossible.

Overall I tend to agree wholeheartedly with his conclusion:
"Defense budget politics has increasingly become a field of narrow contestation between experts, elites and interested actors, rather than a field in which different visions of the political good engage with one another. This has resulted in a prioritization of bureaucratic interest and parochial concern, both of which are enemies of real grand strategy."
...but tend to see this not as a bug but as a feature. In my opinion throughout MOST of U.S. history our military budgets have been decided this way.

For most of U.S. history that's been fine. We didn't need much in the way of geopolitical strategy to lick the natives of North America; some smallpox and a railroad or two would work just swell. Ad-hoc assemblies of forces would do to swat the Mexicans, Spanish, and Filipinos. You can sum up our geopolitical plans during the period 1918-1940 as "have a big Navy and don't fight anyone worth shit".

WW2? I'll give you that - well done, FDR, George Marshall. and Congresscritters all.

The Cold War was sort of a no-brainer, too. The Soviets were big so we had to be big, and we were already big. They had a blue-water navy and so did we. They had ICBMs and intercontinental bombers and so did we, or we developed them. It wasn't as big a no-brainer as giving smallpox-blankets to the Sioux, but, still...

So we're down to this particular time in history; post-Cold-War, 1991-2012.

And here's where our historical traditions; lack-of-planning, empire-in-a-fit-of-absence-of-mind, foreign-policy-as-an-outgrowth-of-domestic-policy are biting us on the ass. We are suddenly faced with a non-binary choice and an undefined future, a cloud of potential problems rather than a simple "threat". Teasing sense out of the chaotic multipolar world of the 21st Century and translating that sense into some sort of intelligent military policy is the sort of things that asks for a Talleyrand, or a George Marshall.

And instead we're awash with Rick Santorums.

So it occurs to me is that if reducing the U.S. defense budget growth in a sensible, strategically-planned, geopolitically coherent way relies on the sorts of gentlefolk of the sort much found in the U.S. Congress or in charge of the various executive agencies today making some sort of rational choices based on national interests and the cold calculation of economic and political realities we would be better off hoping for a pink magical pony to appear in a cloud of pixie dust, soar overhead and crap out lemon-verbena-scented golden nuggets of budgetary savings.

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