What’s the Point of Having This Superb Military if You Can’t Use It? by mattsteinglass
May 8, 2007, 11:06 am
Filed under: United States, War

That, of course, is what Madeleine Albright asked Colin Powell back in 1993 about his reluctance to use force in Bosnia; and the question is raised anew by Max Sawicky‘s post today at TPMCafe. After 1993, the US traced a decade-long arc of increasing willingness to use force for liberal internationalist goals (Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan), which was quickly hijacked into a foolhardy eagerness to use force for conservative nationalist goals (Iraq); and now we’re back to square 0, with a US public probably unwilling today to use force for almost anything short of fighting off an invasion by Mexico.

This raises the question, once again: what exactly is the US military for? The numbers of those eager to use it to shore up the “American empire”, a la Max Boot, Fred Kagan and Niall Ferguson, have shrunk to a bunkered-in handful. Those who don’t think it should be used for much of anything — not in Iraq, not in Iran, not in Darfur, not in Somalia, certainly not in North Korea — are now a majority of the US population. In between, there remains a substantial cadre of politicians and policy experts still committed to the late 1990s vision of the use of American force for liberal internationalist purposes: stabilizing failed states, preventing genocide. Among presidential candidates, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden all seem to fall into this camp. This dictates continued support for a large military budget; Barack Obama wants to increase the Army’s size by 92,000 troops. Since the GOP’s candidates are wedded, at least rhetorically, to a nationalistic “strong America” stance towards the military, there seems no real prospect of substantial cuts to the US’s military budget.

So what are we planning to do with this gigantic military? What do we need it for? The fact is that the only area of the world where the US’s current military posture is clearly justifiable is in Taiwan.

Taking a look around the world today, there are no serious state-led military threats (as opposed to non-state or terrorist threats) to US interests or ideals. Russia is newly confident, nationalist, and non-democratic, but Russian military interventions are implausible except in Caucasian and Central Asian countries where the US has few strategic or ideological interests, and couldn’t realistically assert them against Russia even if it had them. There is no serious prospect of Iranian military expansionism against the Gulf states. Israel possesses its own nuclear deterrent against direct attack by Iran, while large conventional forces have proven ineffective as a deterrent to terrorism and asymmetric warfare. US interests in Africa are largely not threatened by state-on-state aggression.

There is only one realistic strategic threat in the world today which could justify the US’s desire to maintain 12 aircraft carrier battle groups and 500+ air-superiority fighters: China’s threat to take over Taiwan, or intimidate it into an anschluss. But this is a threat that can’t and shouldn’t be discussed publicly as part of an American presidential campaign, because that would have pointlessly negative diplomatic repercussions. Still, the problem exists. Is Taiwanese democracy worth the US maintaining two carrier battle groups in the Pacific? Is the US really willing to maintain that deterrent forever? At what point might even two carrier battle groups become insufficient, given China’s world-beating economic growth and rising military power? China will become the world’s largest economy, possibly, by 2020. At that point, is it realistic to believe that the US military will still be able to deter a country with a population of (by then) 1.5 billion from annexing a secessionist province of perhaps 30 million, if it comes to that?

Ideally, the US should try to make sure it never comes to that. The best endgame would be for the “one China” diplomatic fiction to persist forever, until China becomes democratic, or the world evolves into some kind of weird futuristic IT-enabled post-electoral form of government we can’t even describe yet. (Maybe China will get there first. Who knows.) But in the meantime, if we do care about democracy in East Asia, it seems foolish to allow the full burden of assuring its military defense to fall on the US military. It’s incredibly expensive, and we may not even be able to handle it. What’s needed is a firmer commitment by democratic countries in the region to mutual defense, with an understanding that this could be invoked against China. This is what we had, of course, back in the Cold War era; but it evaporated due to the US’s pro-China tilt. The problem is to encourage a fairly explicit commitment to mutual defense against China, without aggressively antagonizing China for no good reason.

That’s incredibly hard to do. The key player, as far as Taiwan is concerned, would be Japan. But as everybody knows, East Asians aren’t particularly happy about the prospect of a Japan with greater military power and the willingness to use it. In terms of Japan’s internal politics, the drive to build up the military and change the constitution to allow it to be used abroad is bound up with a streak of jingoistic nationalism and a desire to deny the country’s responsibility for war atrocities during WW II, as well as its overall responsibility for the war. The only way Japan can hope to increase its military posture, which would in fact benefit the strategic stability of the region as a counterweight to China, would be to accompany such a shift with a raft of sincere apologies to every country in the region for its behavior in the war — no more visits to the Yasukuni shrine; official compensation for “comfort women”; and so forth. But the kinds of politicians who can expand the country’s military profile are not the politicians who might apologize for war crimes. They represent the opposite constituency. Abe is about as likely to compensate the “comfort women” as George W. Bush is to compensate Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. Which is just one of the reasons why getting the strategic balance right in East Asia, as China grows towards superpower status, looks like a tricky proposition.

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