Threatening War Where There Is No Threat: The Pointless Dissipation of America’s Power
The latest deployment of warships to the Middle East brings the United States closer to war with Iran than we have been in decades. We are currently at war, threatening war or waging low-level combat operations against over a dozen countries and non-government entities: Iran, Venezuela, Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, China, Russia, al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, and various terror groups in Africa.
This unnecessary and counterproductive military overextension doesn't make us stronger or safer. It is precisely how great powers have destroyed themselves throughout history, squandering national power on peripheral concerns.
If we don’t immediately change course and refocus on building our prosperity rather than reshaping the politics of distant lands, we will be the next in line for decline.
Establishment thinking in Washington will tell you with great enthusiasm that all of these current and proposed military operations are necessary for our survival. The voices responsible for the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy failures claim our security will be imperiled that limiting our military intervention will cost power and influence in the world.
The reality is the opposite.
By seeking confrontation around the globe with terror groups and states of all sizes—some of them nuclear powers—when there are no direct U.S. security interests at stake, we dramatically increase the probability of unnecessary war and painful military stagnation or defeat.
Counterterror operations do not require endless wars abroad conducted by permanent or semi-permanent deployed forces. Our counterterror operations are most effective in response to specific, imminent threats handled by U.S.-based “ISR-Strike” forces as well as seamless cooperation between international intelligence-sharing partners, and federal, state, and local law enforcement.
A sober look at the global threat environment confirms that the United States need not fight or threaten any wars around the globe right now. Continuing pointless, destructive, and permanently failing wars makes America weak at a time when we should be doing everything possible to build strength.
A brief survey of present security challenges makes this all the more evident.
In every situation, our world-class conventional military and strategic nuclear forces function as an inimitable deterrent force and guarantee vital U.S. interests. There is no nation on the planet with our ability to project power, dominate the skies, command the global commons, and control events in space.
No nation on earth would dare seek a direct military or nuclear challenge to the United States—none are seeking to now.
Economic prosperity is the foundation of national power, and China’s economy has expanded dramatically in recent years—but an economic competition is vastly different from a near-term security threat. Beijing’s focus is on economic development above all. The significant improvement in China’s military capacity over the past 20 years is unquestionably focused on territorial defense, even as it seeks to find elbow room in its backyard.
Even Beijing’s militarization of several man-made islands in the South China Sea is fundamentally a static, defensive tactic that doesn’t change the military balance of power, the metric that matters for U.S. security. China has shown no indication of intent or capability to project force beyond Taiwan. It is not threatening regional neighbors or the United States.
Russia has a massive nuclear arsenal and is the only power on earth able to destroy our entire country, but Moscow would never launch an unprovoked first strike because American retaliation would mean mutually assured destruction. Modern Russia is not the Soviet Union, doesn't have the conventional military capacity once contained in the Warsaw Pact alliance, and does not have the force structure to invade Western Europe. It does seek to defend its borders and exert regional influence—and play global spoiler—but is not threatening American security.
Iran is a small and weak nation that has been subjected to punishing Western sanctions for decades. Tehran's ground forces are primarily equipped with antiquated Western gear obtained before the 1979 revolution. The Iranian regime has virtually no ability to project power beyond its borders, and certainly not beyond its region. It could mount a spirited defense of its territory, however, especially in the mountainous north and west of the country, making unprovoked military intervention by the United States strategically bankrupt and too costly to consider.
North Korea has a considerable artillery capability, some old but sizable mechanized formations, and a robust short and medium-range missile force. Leader Kim Jong-un has more than one million active-duty troops, but they are primarily light infantry. Even with his small nuclear arsenal, Kim could not conquer South Korea, let alone the United States. His aim is regime survival, which means he is deterrable and will only enter a conflict with the U.S. if we launch an unprovoked attack.
In Venezuela, the hated dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro can't feed its people or even keep its lights on. The humanitarian crisis there is not a security threat. The only way we lose with Venezuela is if we launch an unprovoked attack and insert ourselves into what would become a vicious civil war. American military intervention would make Venezuela's profound and severe problems our own without any guarantee of actually helping the Venezuelan people progress toward peace and freedom.
Africa poses no security threat to the United States. Having a few thousand American troops spread across several dozen countries in North and Sub-Saharan African does nothing to minimize even a theoretical terror threat to the United States. Our combat forces in Africa are focused on parochial nuisances and should all be withdrawn immediately.
The geopolitical conditions prevailing around the world right now, coupled with America’s favorable geography, peerless military, and strategic deterrent, give us an unprecedented opportunity to enjoy historic national security and economic prosperity.
These benefits are ours to lose, and we will lose them if we continue to foolishly misuse our military; stay entangled in perpetual, permanent war in foreign lands; and threaten war against virtually any opponent with whom we have a political dispute.
We can extend this rare moment of security and prosperity well into the future by ending the unnecessary wars Washington is waging around the globe. We can reform and refit our military to ensure it can successfully defend against any genuine threat, and we can change the nature of our global leadership to one of diplomatic and economic engagement.
We can end the illogical, destructive policies of the post-9/11 era and embrace a peaceful and prosperous future from a position of unrivaled strength. The choice is ours to make today.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1