Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 3. When is it Ok to Lose a War?


For part one, on Afghanistan, try here; for part two, on Iran, try here.

The budget deficit for FY 2009 (which ended on September 30, 2009) was $1.42 trillion. I can hardly think of a better reason to ask the question in the title of this post. For comparison purposes, the US economy is about $14.5 trillion and its national debt is $12 trillion. South Korea’s GDP is about $900 billion. So the US borrowed 150% of the entire output of the world’s 13th largest economy. If that is not imperial decline, I don’t know what is. The day after I read that statistic, I told my Korean students they should start thinking about a post-American Korean alliance framework. The odds against us are lengthening fast.

A few months ago, the US general in Afghanistan said we are losing there. And that seems to be the general consensus. This happened in Iraq too from 2004 – 2007, and in Vietnam after Tet. In the Iraqi case we pulled off something like a miracle with the surge and tribal awakening against al Qaeda. Although the best authority on Iraq says we are worse there than we think, at least we aren’t calling it the ‘forever war’ or a ‘fiasco’ anymore. In Vietnam of course, things went less well. Despite the changes at the top (Clark Clifford, Creighton Abrams, then the Nixon administration), we could not pull the South back from the brink, and by 1975, we had effectively lost.

So my question is why would a great power like the US give up, one possible option in the current greater ME mess? Clearly the US has huge resources, greater than North Vietnam & the VC, al Qaeda in Iraq, or the Taliban. (Remember that the Iraq Study Group recommended in the fall of 2006 that we gradually withdraw – effectively giving up. Nor is it likely that we are willing to plunge back into Iraq in huge force if things go badly in the next 2 years, during the final withdrawal.) And we have seen other great powers give up and leave/lose before too: the USSR in Afghanistan, France in Algeria, and lots of the postcolonial struggles. This is a great dissertation waiting to be written. Here are a few thoughts, all directly relevant to the medium-term US presence in the GME.

1. Wars, like any other enterprise, involve a cost-benefit analysis. Sullivan makes quite clear just how high the costs of the GWoT really are, and how little we have accomplished. It is painful reading. But by any reasonable assessment, the costs of the ME to the US are skyrocketing and look only to increase for all sorts of reasons (continuing Israeli intransigence, Iran’s nuclear sprint, the $1 trillion price tag on McChrystal’s plan). The unprecedented size of the budget deficit, and level of borrowing necessary to continue the ME wars, makes the cost-benefit question far more relevant than I have seen in the Afghanistan surge debate in the last few months. Too much of the debate has focused on Obama’s backbone or channeled ‘Americans-don’t-lose-wars’ nationalism. Far too little focuses on the extreme lack of resources.

2. We learned from Vietnam that losing a war isn’t so bad after all. All the predictions of the 1970s about coming of multipolarity, the end of the Cold War, the rise of the third world, and American decline were wrong. The US has tremendous power reserves. A strategic retrenchment will not diminish them. Most of the world will still expect US military power to dominate major power crises; most of the world will still value US market access above all trading relationships. Leaving the ME is not the fall of the Roman Empire.

3. Extended wars are domestically destabilizing and liberalism-reducing. This is a brutally obvious lesson from democracies in extended wars or standoffs. Israel and South Korea have done reasonably well in reconciling the nationalism and militarism demanded in such competitions, with the liberalism and social tolerance we expect from democracies. But the nominal, might-have-been democracies of Pakistan and South Vietnam were simply destroyed by unrelenting external confrontation.

4. Small wars that become big endanger other, more critical international commitments. Here is another Vietnam lesson. The drain of Vietnam began to seriously endanger America’s more central needs in Western Europe and Northeast Asia; this is major reason why we gave up. Today, the 3 trillion dollar GWoT is sapping America’s ability to hold the line in places of much greater importance. While Europe is not threatened (Russia somewhat in the east), East Asia is witnessing a major power shift.  It’s hard to argue that Asia’s rise is not of far greater importance to the US than the enduring primitivism of ME. The US is not balancing China right now, but it is awful nervous about the future of Chinese power, and  you can be sure the Chinese relish watching the US lose its bearings (torture) in the ME.

12 thoughts on “Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 3. When is it Ok to Lose a War?

  1. Dr. Bob:

    I really like your map. You are a visionary! Thank you, your map says its all.

    On your question. It looks more like we are going to punt the ball high and long (or at least try) to the other side and hope that our defense can hold them to a 3rd and long. Problem is that they won’t punt back, they will go for it on fourth and extremely long.

    We are plagued with inertia in this country. The Army beaurocracy (except a few enlightened men such as Bob Gates and company) wants to move on to conventional warfare it seems. Our country is running out of resources (the resources that we had have been wasted on bad ideas turned into policy). And on and on.

    I do still think that the worse national security threat apart from terrorism is our primary and high school education in this country. We are producing people who don’t know what WWII is, the Cold War, Industrialization, how to write and read, think critically, and do basic math. How will they understand the true nature of this global threat? How will they be equipped to make decisions (vote etc.) vis a vis this threat?


  2. I am quite proud of my American Football analogy. Not bad for a guy who grew up playing Football in Europe. I used to play right back (right wing on the defense) on my school’s squad.


  3. “tribal awakening against al Qaeda” this is the KEY!

    The Taliban are not murdering the Afghan population for sport as al Qaeda did to the Iraqis. They are on the verge of conducting a real guerrilla war. I doubt that they will get there because of their infusion with al Qaeda. We could exploit this fatal flaw but how? For one, we would have to stop the war on drugs in Afghanistan. As long as we are fighting the war on drugs in Afghanistan, without the Afghan government creating the conditions for private enterprise to grow, we are implementing a fatal policy.


    • I agree completely. We have to decide which war is most important. Truth is, neither is important enough to outweigh the costs at this point…my opinion. To your first point: The top 10% of engineering and science graduates in China and India outnumber all our graduates in those fields. To save a buck, our companies outsourced even a lot of the R&D they perform. The only thing China lacks is brands, and they’re rapidly fixing that problem. We’ve lost our edge.

      We should be leading in energy, high-yield agriculture, research and development, engineering, IT, secondary education, supply chain management, and management science (the small portion of it that’s not total BS). We should also insist on a large and diverse heavy manufacturing base here, which is the only way to create a durable base of domestic supply chain management expertise.

      Instead we’re spending all our money on the biggest jobs program in the history of the word, the defense industry. We get a lot of IT and project management expertise out of the deal but it’ll all be for nothing if that knowledge doesn’t get applied to productive tasks. I love defense R&D, some of the best in the country, but much of the rest of what the industry does is wasted energy and money.


  4. So do you guys think we should surge in Afghanistan too? Should we stay and slug it out, or even more, up the ante with McChrystal’s plan?

    I just don’t know anymore. That $1.42 trillon deficit figure just blew me away. Literally, I remember my jaw lowering as I read that. This just cannot go on. This is how great states collapse – when they financially overextend themselves like this. We KNOW this from past history. I am genuinely afraid that we are at the precipice now.

    So what do we do?


  5. We bail. We have to. I’ve learned over the past few months that even very popular policies can be demogagued into losers by the right (the left is far less organized and focused). Ultimately the purpose of winning elections is (or should be) to enact policies. These are equivalent to touchdowns or field goals in football. But in reality, the football played in Washington seems to value ball possession more than points.

    Obama should spend – spend – his political capital on healthcare and getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. If he’s a patriot, he should be willing to suffer a loss in 2012 for those goals. Save the country, lose an election. It’s worth it. In the long run I think Democrats will benefit, but look at healthcare polls: The current bills would deliver more or less what voters have told pollsters they want, in overwhelming numbers. And they’re now more unpopular than popular. The demagoguery and fear-mongering worked. But…so what, pass them anyway.

    Voters also tell pollsters they favor pullouts from Iraq and Afghanistan. But when the time comes to do that, the wasps’ nest of Kagans will be stirred to action, cable TV will be filled to overflowing for weeks about defeatism, white flags of surrender, and so on – and the pullouts will become unpopular.

    So it’s time for us to suck it up and do it anyway, and be willing to lose an election over it.


  6. I think that the US is in this one for the long haul. Especially now so many countries and international cooperations have interests in Afghanistan. I mean, the Chinese are in charge of the largest development project in Afghanistan, they need us there. We need them for other reasons. They will keep on loaning the US the money to fight and stay.


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