Boston Globe: ‘Conventional military has lost power’

A soldier with the Kurdish peshmerga paused at an outpost on the edges of Kirkuk in Iraq.
A soldier with the Kurdish peshmerga paused at an outpost on the edges of Kirkuk in Iraq.

HORRIFIC CONFLICTS are shaking the Middle East, and war has erupted in Eastern Europe. The United States seems unable to shape the course of events. This is despite the fact that we have by far the most powerful military in the world.

Today’s conflicts illustrate the declining value of conventional military power. For many decades, the United States dominated the world mainly because we had the most potent military. We still do — but that no longer brings the dominance it once assured.

For much of history, power has been won on the battlefield. Victory depended on your army. If it was bigger, stronger, and better led than the enemy, you would probably win.

That charmingly simple equation is now evaporating. In the emerging new world, cultural forces and webs of global politics and economics bind nations together in ways that make the exercise of military power more difficult. The idea that a big power can easily stop, win, or decisively intervene in an overseas conflict by applying massive force is a relic of past centuries. Potent armies are less valuable than they once were.

This is naturally troubling for the United States. No one wants to see the value of a principal asset decline. Our military, however, is best prepared to fight the kind of battles that are no longer fought. It is a truism that generals are great at fighting the last war. Something similar could be said of American security policies: They address past challenges, which are easy to see, but not the more complex ones the future holds.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Iraq. A violently anti-American force has seized a huge part of the country, and the state itself may be on the brink of collapse. The United States, with all its military power, sits helplessly on the sidelines. This is not because of fecklessness in the White House. It is because in Iraq, as in many other places, our military power could achieve only short-term success at best.

In fact, it was our use of military force that helped produce this disaster. Our invasion in 2003 not only failed to produce victory in Iraq. It set off processes that led, among other things, to a palpable decline in our global power.

Another vivid example of the limited value of military force is now unfolding in Gaza. Radicals there, armed with rudimentary weapons, have dragged the mighty Israeli army into a bloody conflict. They win strength — and blacken Israel’s name in the world — even as they suffer inevitable defeat on the battlefield. Israel clings even more fervently than the United States to the dangerously outmoded view that countries can guarantee their long-term security by military means alone.

The United States has not won a war since 1945 — unless you count the defeat of Grenada in 1983. Despite the application of huge resources, and enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure, we lost major wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This is despite the fact that by conventional standards, our military is the world’s best.

Tradition, inertia, and the natural impulse to cling to old certainties all contribute to America’s refusal to confront the declining value of our prized military. Something else also drives it: the defense industry.

Military contractors have mastered the art of applying campaign contributions to gain political influence. They habitually divide major projects into pieces so that powerful members of Congress depend on them not just for contributions, but for employment in their districts. This naturally discourages the posing of questions about the true value of projects like the F-35 fighter jet, which is to cost taxpayers an eye-popping $1.45 trillion over the coming decades.

Centuries ago Christopher Marlowe asked, “What are kings, when regiment is gone,/But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” It is a fit question for the modern United States. We are accustomed to being something like kings of the world, but our regiment is now — not gone, but weakened. The decreasing value of armies threatens our standing in the world. Given this reality, how can we prevent ourselves from fading like shadows? How can we influence the world when the instrument we wield best — military force — no longer allows us to impose our will?

Successful countries of the 21st century will be those that are skillful at public diplomacy, cultural politics, and alliance-building. In the past, because of our military power, we have not had to develop those skills. We will have to learn them if we hope to project power in the future.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

2 Responses

  1. Bob Funke
    Bob Funke at | | Reply

    Two things from Sun Tzu cross my mind, first, “the best war is the one that was never fought”. See if you can work things out without bloodshed, hatred or malice. The second is a standard maxim for all fighting forces, “know your enemy”. In Vietnam, we thought power was king, we lost because we did not understand the reasoning of the North. Few people know that Ho Chi Mihn was a US ally, and begged Truman to oust the French, Truman ignored Ho’s request. History speaks volumes of what was to come. In the current “excursions”, we are fighting more than men, we are fighting an ideology based on a religion; the only way we can come out ahead is through humanitarian maxims. The people we are fighting now, will remember this for 1000 years, Bush, et al never realized that and Obama is now caught in the same trap.

  2. Richard Di Franco
    Richard Di Franco at | | Reply

    If we, in the USA, spent half the time and $ trying to convince ourselves that we are the greatest, most moral, most powerful country in the world and instead actually start doing the basic, necessary things that would make it so; then maybe we could be just that. Instead we act and react and strut around like we know what we are doing, at a great cost of lives and resources to ourselves and others, with little or no success and a trail of embarrassing failures.

    I have been fortunate to have traveled to quite a few countries and for the most part people in these different parts of the world appeared relatively proud and happy, although often their living conditions were not what we here in the States would consider even close to our standards.

    We seem to expect Kenyans, or Peruvians to say, if asked, that America is the greatest country; but most of them would probably claim theirs was. I think this is why we like to consort with the discontents in these places as it fortifies our own over inflated notion of ourselves.

    In the early 2000’s several books were written by a then CIA intelligence officer, Michael Scheuer (Anonymous), which called attention to the “Imperial Hubris” the author felt was provoking the Islamic terrorists. Scheuer made some interesting points, but later got pretty whacky.

    Hubris did become the word of the day; and Bush, Cheney, Dumbsfeld,and the neocon Vulcans did all they could to make it so.

    We are great at vilifying leaders in other countries we don’t like, but somehow we manage to find dams or airports to name after our own failed leaders. At the rate we ‘re screwing up we will soon be running out of dams, airports, bridges, etc.

    Our totally misguided policies have created a very messed up world.

    “Arab Spring”?? Peter Bergen wrote that the overthrow of secular dictators in Arab countries was a top bin Laden priority. Mubarak, Saddam, Gadafi found that out, and probably never had to read Bergen’s book.

    Why are we sending 30 – 40 yr old Reservists and Nat. Guardsmen into hostile areas against fanatical 20 yr olds? We need a sufficiently large force of highly trained Special Ops to be sent in to deal with critical situations. Seems like that’s where we were- coming out of the Sec of D Perry and Cohen era. Never mind shelling out $ Billlions to private contractors. Use these Billions to pay the Special Ops what they’re worth. If today’s athletes are worth Millions, surely these elite warriors should be paid some big bucks as well. And we will be once again the great nation we all expect to be.

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