Friday, 19 December, 2008

The simple economics of frightening Uncle Sam and his nephews

 I am listening to a series of lectures on international affairs by a Stanford professor. His analysis offers a simple explanation on why America should find the 'war on terror' very hard to win, and should it emerge victorious, the victory will almost certainly be a Pyrrhic one.

In war, the Americans have always emphasised materials over men. (Cynics may add myths to materials, but that's not the point; in fact, myth-making may be democratic necessity.) Most of America's wars were against weak powers, both relatively and absolutely, like Mexico, Spain, the tiny Caribbean islands, Iraq, and, lest we forget, Vietnam (They killed far more than they lost, never gave up territory, and pushed back all attacks, including the famous Tet Offensive. Yet, the body bags had them losing the war, first in their minds, and then at the conference table). In the Second World War, the preponderance of material in the American contribution becomes easily apparent when one compares the blood split by America to that lost by Germany, Japan and Russians. Americans believe, reasonably, that they came out tops in the Cold War because they outspent the USSR.

All this, plus the geographical isolation of mainland USA, gives the American citizen almost the god-given right to expect bloodless victory. The first Iraq War demonstrated that this presumption was not misplaced.

However, crushing your enemy with the quantity and quality (technological superiority) of weapons is expensive, more so for a government described as a 'retirement fund which happens to have an army'.

Now, the terrorist strikes, mostly at client states and accomplices, sometimes at embassies and tourists, and once, with devastating effect, at symbols (churches?) of American (big) business and military.

The staggering military might of the American state renders inadmissible anything less than complete, fail-safe and deathless security. Providing such security to voters requires wars of propaganda (for morale), denial of certain values (liberties) that they assume essential, perhaps unique, to their particular civilisation and, above all, lots of money.

The terrorists' main cost, on the other hand, is time and lives, both of which they have in plenty. 

What makes matters worse for the US is that its juniors, like Pakistan, India and Israel, demand that it protect them – at any rate, their elites – from terror too. Unfortunately, the Americans can't colonise these places (in the sense that they could take over, say, a Pacific island inhabited by some aborigines during WW2), yet need them for bases and cannon fodder. Worse, these juniors are often at each other's throats and justifiably or not, like to trace their problems to Uncle Sam. An expensive and complicated war becomes more of both. 

In a nutshell, America must maintain perfect Pax America. It must be the world's sole army and main police. And the terrorist needs to only keep up a steady stream of suicidees to bleed America dry. 

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