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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

America's Strategic Insolvency

Michael Mazarr is a Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College and author of an interesting article entitled The Risks of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency (see #1). The term strategic insolvency is possibly the most concise, on-target description of the risks to America's future, stemming from military, economic and political (foreign and domestic) strategies which are out of sync with current reality and also out of sync with each other. It is also the phrase that best describes the issue left completely unaddressed in the Presidential debates and the entire campaign.

Michael Mazarr appeared on Charlie Rose on October 23, 2012 (see #2) and discussed some of the points of his analysis and their implications with a panel of other commentators on military and foreign policy, including James Jones, David Ignatius and Zbigniew Brzezinksi. The original article is relatively short (18) pages and both the article and the discussion on Charlie Rose are highly recommended.

Strategic Insolvency in A Nutshell

The basic thesis of Mazarr's article starts with a comment Mazarr quotes from Barry Posen who said that any debate of post Cold War foreign policy strategy has focused on the FORM of American hegemony to pursue, not WHETHER to seek it. Mazarr's article lays out the case that any current formulation of global foreign policy strategy expressed by the Obama Administration or any alternative source fail to reflect reality in the following areas:

BUDGETS -- rising debt levels imposed by higher defense spending are crippling the larger economy that "lays the golden egg" to pay for military capabilities in the first place and that long term healthcare costs within the military (perhaps more so than the general economy) are likely to triple, drawing more dollars from traditional "tip of the spear" spending.

ALTERNATIVE CENTERS OF POWER -- Though many powers throughout the world still want America to stick it's neck out military and financially to support consensus reactions to threats, virtually all of those same powers want less influence from America in establishing that consensus. In other words, we'll let you do the lifting if you are willing be we want to choose what gets lifted and where it goes.

CHANGING MILITARY ABILITIES TO PROJECT POWER -- Many other players and non-state actors have some technologies such as missiles and drones which can negate some of America's traditional military capabilities. More importantly, many of the biggest risks to our economic and political stability are strictly speaking no longer constrained to pure military threats. Computer viruses, theft of critical intellectual property and globalized markets for commodities provide numerous opportunities for attacks on infrastructure, communication networks and markets both within American and worldwide.

LACK OF PROVEN NON-MILITARY TOOLS -- Like everyone else on the planet, America hasn't formulated any non-military strategies for addressing "root cause" issues in the areas of economic development, organized crime, resource constraints and ecological issues that spiral into second tier problems of radicalism, terrorism, etc. which increase global instability.

A SPLIT-BRAINED AMERICAN PUBLIC -- American voters and taxpayers are growing increasingly wary of the economic and social costs of our role as world policeman yet haven't leaned on their leaders to force discussion of our choices and force formulation of new choices that can materially change the game.

Mazarr then outlines some of the direct results of these unaddressed issues. Most importantly, failure to address these issues will further enhance the perception of America across the world as over-extended and ineffectual at best. America will also wind up wasting resources pursing losing strategies instead of focusing them on identifying better strategies for addressing world issues affecting American security and prosperity. As this perception of being "over-extended" grows in the minds of allies and adversaries, it becomes a spiraling problem as it weakens any legitimacy that comes from success and power when success and power become increasingly difficult to demonstrate in all of the situations in which we attempt to intervene.

It seems clear that many of these concerns have actually been understood and used to formulate SOME Pentagon planning dating back to Robert Gate's tenure as Secretary of Defense for both President Bush and President Obama. Early in his tenure, Gates addressed the need to reduce and restructure defense spending by shifting dollars from some traditional weapons systems to more special ops oriented capabilities (personnel and equipment). Most notably, Gates directly stated the problem while speaking to NATO members before his retirement:

In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: Between members who specialize in ”soft” humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks, and those conducting the ”hard” combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership—be they security guarantees or headquarters billets—but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable. The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. (see #3)

Unfortunately, the problems with the current outmoded, out-of-sync strategies are so dire, that internal discussions within the Pentagon during budget planning are not enough. This isn't just a military problem. It's a strategic problem that crosses all boundaries between military, economic and political strategies. It's also a problem that has gone completely unaddressed during the 2012 presidential campaign. Neither Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have clearly explained the true magnitude of the "guns versus butter" choices we need to make and how those choices require changes in our assumptions and default reactions about where we become involved in the world and how.


One good specific example of the true cost of this "strategic insolvency" of American thinking was provided by a guest in a second segment on the same October 23 edition of Charlie Rose. (see #4) Dexter Filkins, a writer for The New Yorker and The New York Times, talked about a message he received recently on his Twitter account from a retired soldier living in San Diego. The soldier identified himself as one of the soldiers involved in a 2003 incident in which American troops operating a checkpoint in Iraq wound up shooting at an approaching vehicle, thinking they were insurgents. The shooting killed all of the males in a family and left one female survivor, age 20.

Filkins wrote a story about the shooting back in 2003 (see #5) and hadn't thought to do any follow-up until the soldier contacted him from San Diego. The soldier hasn't slept through the night for nine years, grew dependent on painkillers, etc. Filkins subsequently found out that the survivor actually moved to America and was living in Glendale, CA roughly 200 miles from the soldier.

Filkins wrote a follow-up story in The New Yorker called Atonement (see #6) which describes the "reunion" of sorts between the soldier and the Iraqi woman and other information gleaned from discussions with other members of the company involved in the 2003 shooting. The soldiers he spoke with estimate that at least 75 of the roughly 150 in the company are "basically wrecked" through divorce, unemployment, drug addiction, etc. The story also mentions the term "moral injury" used by a psychiatrist to describe the damage done to soldiers who follow the directions provided assuming they are absolutely the correct thing to do at the time but later find out their actions have horrific (and sometimes unjust) consequences.

Even if many soldiers never experienced a case as wrenching as that in Filkin's original story, a LARGE number of soldiers were exposed to a great deal of death and violence over an extended period of time in our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to a study by the RAND Corporation commissioned by the Army in 2008, (see #7, page x), over one million unique soldiers have served tours in Iraq in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2008.

* 121,000 troops in the Army had served their first year
* 173,000 troops had served two years
* 79,000 troops had served three years
* 9,000 troops had served four years

(And that's just the Army -- this study didn't address counts from other branches of the military).

The same report also found that the ratio of time spent as "Boots On Ground" to "Dwelling" at the home base was closer to 1:1 (meaning about a 50/50 split) versus a more desired 1:2 (meaning a split of about 33% in the field versus 66% on base). The report also notes that "Dwell" time also counts time travelling to the theatre. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, where roadside bombs were / are the preferred weapon of choice by the enemy, time spent traveling to the theatre was equally stressful and dangerous to troops as actual "BOG" time.

That's a lot of soldiers with high risk for life-altering post traumatic stress disorder related problems. Those PSTD problems don't just affect the soldiers but their extended families. That's certainly a different perspective of the true costs of America's strategic insolvency.


#1) http://csis.org/files/publication/twq12FallMazarr.pdf

#2) http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12620

#3) http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581

#4) http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12622

#5) http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/19/world/nation-war-casualties-for-family-iraq-3-deaths-moment-confusion.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

#6) http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/10/29/121029fa_fact_filkins

#7) http://www.rand.org/pubs/documented_briefings/2010/RAND_DB587.pdf