THE BLOG

What Would Clausewitz Do?

08/05/2014 10:39 am ET | Updated Oct 05, 2014
  • James A. Nathan Khaled bin Sultan Eminent Scholar, Auburn University at Montgomery

What happens if Russia actually makes a grab for Ukraine? What about other not so far fetched horribles: a Sino-Japanese exchange of fire or the fall of Baghdad? There would be a mighty throb of urgings for a concerted U.S. response.

Even now, the drums beat ever louder for more muscular military policies. And there's logic to being safe rather than sorry -- in the abstract.

But, there's the troublesome record. A fair-minded review of the last 40 or 50 years reveals a painfully meager inventory of successes. Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan (we can hope) are arguable exceptions.

After that, it is a woeful litany.

Vietnam and Iraq stand as unalloyed fiascos. And then there are the all but forgotten semi-covert Central American wars. The Reagan era efforts to counter drugs and communism (occasionally antithetic goals) succeeded in nearly shredding the American Constitution (who remembers or could explain the Iran Contra Affair?) -- an effort that resulted in eviscerating Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries were flooded with migrants and drugs. The Central American wars concluded with still expanding mayhem, some of it reflected in the faces of 50,000 children on our Southern border.

And, in the Muslim world, it is fair to ask what we have wrung from that difficult terrain? Over the last 40 years, we've tried armed actions in Beirut, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. And what do we have to show for it?

One American conservative commentator's, Andrew Bacevich recently reflected about a half century of America's encounters with Islam:

Have America's interests been secured? Have the peoples enjoyed the benefits of democracy? Has America's power or prestige been enhanced in the Islamic world? The answers, alas, are no; no; and no.

In politics, like business, there are reckonings. Dickens' Mr. Micawber's famously figured: "Annual income 20 pounds; annual expenditure 20 pounds ought and six -- result misery."

No differently, Carl Von Clausewitz, the great preceptor of war studied by all American officers, wrote: "Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow."

Yet, any military or diplomatic accountant can only be saddened by the toll of flops. Whole regions of the world are now riven by sanguinary mayhem.

The roll call of 40 years of fiascos and failures can't be vindicated by the paltry instances of success. Yet calls like those of prominent American policy advisors like Robert Kagan, are widely heralded. Kagan recently proclaimed: "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire."

The urge to aid the distressed who but strive for their rights was joined by John Quincy Adams, who responded to swelling enthusiasm to help Greece in the 1820s -- Greek fever as it was called, saying: Americans are "well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all;" for even if America were to become "the dictress of the world," Adams admonished she "would be no [be] longer the ruler of her own spirit...". Indeed.

But the current price of world order is at an inflection point. Obligations for social security, service debt, and a defense tab that exceeds 25 percent of annual federal outlays threaten to swamp the ability to pay. The cost of veterans care, funding the so-called "pivot" to Asia, simply maintaining nuclear systems, buying 2,400 F-35s jet fighters at $300 million each, and bombers at more than a half billion a copy, and the huge expense of an all-oceans Navy -- all inevitably eat into domestic claims on federal revenue.

Generations face a staggering tab -- $6 trillion according to a recent Harvard study (six times the constant dollar cost of Vietnam) for just the last 10 years of war. And, for what?

In foreign policy discourse, the tally of unmet needs are somehow sublimated -- a fivefold jump in the number of hungry Americans since the late 1960s; an inventory of America's schools findings buildings, 84,000 dams that dating from the Eisenhower years and beyond. And America's of middling achievement on nearly every scholastic achievement speaks its own shame.

Years ago, a presidential advisor cut short a New York Times reporter speaking about the "realist calculus of interest and power: 'We're an empire now," Karl Rove explained testily, "when we act, we create our own reality."

However mighty the efforts, the catalog miserable facts remain. And as ever harder as it might be to rebuff the calls to redeem the world, until we redeem our own, a looming cataract of woe is more than a distant roar.