The American people and their elected representatives appear to be suffering from “wars fatigue,” which I define as the inevitable exhaustion that occurs when the nation suffers through multiple, protracted and not too successful conflicts. Not since World War Two have U.S. military forces been engaged in conflicts on three fronts. A majority of Americans, around 60 percent according to recent polls, oppose continuing the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Administration supporters in Congress are finding it difficult to come up with a resolution of support for ongoing operations against the Gaddafi regime. The U.S. continues to suffer casualties in Iraq even as administration officials call on the Iraqis to let some number of military personnel remain after December 2011. Some commentators have even wondered whether a fourth front might be opening up in Yemen where a civil war is brewing and the administration continues to ramp up drone strikes and the use of combat aircraft on Al Qaeda targets.
Protracted conflicts always try nations’ souls and the mettle of their people. Abraham Lincoln believed almost until Election Day that popular discontent would result in his losing the election of 1864. Great Britain’s war weariness was reflected in the Tories loss of Parliament and the resulting ouster of Churchill as prime minister in 1945 on the eve of complete victory. Then there was Eugene McCarthy’s upstart challenge to Lyndon Johnson that forced him to end his reelection campaign. It is rather amazing that Americans have tolerated these wars of choice as long as they have.
The All Volunteer Force and the absence of a draft have insulated the American people and successive administrations from most of the consequences of fighting three wars. The force itself is increasingly strained, its equipment aging and its people suffering from the multiple afflictions resulting from repeated deployments. Even the costs of these conflicts, rising to a trillion dollars, have been supported largely through deficit financing and the willingness of foreign countries to hold U.S. debt.
Happily, the American people have not as yet turned isolationist as a result of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. However, polls show that a large majority want to reduce national security spending including money for foreign assistance before they allow entitlements to be cut. There is profound ignorance among many in the electorate about how much is spent on foreign assistance (answer: less than one percent of the federal budget). President Obama has proposed cutting national security spending by $400 billion over twelve years. Others such as Ron Paul and Barney Frank have proposed a trillion dollar reduction over ten years. Both the outgoing and incoming Secretaries of Defense have warned that even a $400 billion reduction in spending would force decision makers to make hard strategic choices; a trillion dollar cut would be devastating to national security.
Perhaps those choices are not as hard as they seem. It is time to choose between wars of choice and those of necessity. In the future, the wars of choice are likely to be like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen. There will be low intensity, protracted insurgencies and civil wars. There will probably be a lot of opportunities to engage in such conflicts. They are largely unwinnable in the classic sense. Moreover, they will not protect the U.S. itself or vital interests abroad. The wars of necessity involve countering aggression against the homeland or vital interests abroad. Deterring or fighting these conflicts will involve high end conventional forces, strategic defenses, the ability to control space and the retention of a credible nuclear deterrent.
U.S. leaders will need to choose which way to go. There will only be enough resources for one military. It will be either manpower oriented, rather large and relatively low tech or technology-focused and smaller than today’s force. The choice needs to be made before wars fatigue turns to outright hostility.
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