Thursday, June 28, 2007

Arkin on defense posture: "Toys speak louder than words"

My readers will rejoice at this temporary reprieve from the impending post on export controls. I just have to respond to Bill Arkin's latest blog post celebrating the symbolic meaning of Ohio-class Trident submarines:

This officer's unhappiness, I submit, is not with the submarine but with our overall predicament: the way the war in Iraq has inflamed so much hate and put so many Americans in harm's way with no decent strategy for victory. In reality, we are involved in an ancient man-to-man battle with a well-motivated enemy. This is a battle we cannot win, at least the way we are fighting it, because our technologically oriented, electronically agile, modern nation is not willing to commit the same manpower -- that is, to sink to the level of barbaric attrition.

Still, this officer's Trident is doing more to counter terrorism than the boots on the ground are. Not because it can lob nukes at anyone, and certainly not because it can counter terrorists under some Strangelovian WMD scenario. Its power is more symbolic: It represents the true superpower. It is a quiet and unobtrusive behemoth that no one else can hope to own and everyone is a bit in awe of -- even if they won't admit it.

Think of the sub as a kind of "mansion on the hill." We drive by it and wonder what it would be like to live there, to have that amount of money. If its owners are good neighbors and not too ostentatious, if they contribute to the community and don't swagger around town arrogantly, we don't get too jealous. If someone breaks into their house, we don't say they deserve it (nor do we call out the Army to rid the county of all house thiefs). We may even shake our heads when the mansion's owners decide not to press charges, and feel a little sad when we see contractors installing a new security system.

My correspondent's submarine is that mansion. The struggle for hearts and minds that we all pay lip service to is not some distant and high-tech information war. It begins at home.

Before 9/11, I would have never thought the military needed more Trident submarines. Now, however, I see their value: Quietly patrolling, threatening no one directly, occupying no one's soil, they help to keep order. And they send a powerful message that says we all have no choice but to play by certain rules and respect each other.

Arkin is on to something, but I think his concluding argument is slightly off the mark. The Ohio-class does have an awesome symbolic power about it, but it is not the benevolent masion on a hill to our allies.

To Arkin, the United States is a hegemony that commands the attention and friendship of its neighbors simply because it is powerful and benevolent. This makes it easy for countries to bandwagon with U.S. policy because the U.S. is both strong and non-threatening. The problem is that this is a false image. Even before the birth of American internationalism after World War II, the intentions of U.S. foreign policy have rarely been benevolent.

So why do we have so many allies? In most cases, our long-standing alliances are the result of a substantial sacrifice on the part of the U.S. Those Tridents that Arkin has fondly meditated on are part of that sacrifice. They represent how much the United States was willing to expend to ensure the security of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. They not only represent the cost of the U.S. was willing to pay in their defense (nuclear holocaust), it also represents the billions we sacrificed to 'deter' Soviet aggression with a superior fighting force.

The problem is that those days are long gone and despite its quiet majesty, the Ohio-class is still a waste of money. In the age of the Internet, the easiest and cheapest way to generate the same sense of sacrifice is to invest in peacekeeping forces. The culturally-adroit, lightly-equipped peacekeeping force that we need to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan is exactly the same kind of force that would generate good will in the post-Cold War/post 9-11 world.

The aggregate level of threat to the U.S. and its allies are quantitatively lower today than during the Cold War. Ponying up the cash needed to build fancy weapons platforms and operate them far from home is no longer enough to impress allies and friendly nations. The sacrifice needs to be bigger. We now need to show we're laying American lives on the line for international security.

3 comments:

J. said...

"The problem is that those days are long gone and despite its quiet majesty, the Ohio-class is still a waste of money. In the age of Internet, the easiest and cheapest way to generate the same sense of sacrifice is the invest in peacekeeping forces. In the same culturally-adroit, lightly-equipped peacekeeping force that we need to win hearts and minds in Iraq and Afghanistan is exactly the kind of force that would generate good will in the post-Cold War/post 9-11 world."

Here, here. I had the same sense of disquiet. Not that the idea of submarines is quaint, but rather I don't get the feeling that they are addressing the new threat of 4th gen warfare, such as it has been described. Arkin's awe is understandable, but misplaced.

Robot Economist said...

I can't believe the number of grammatical errors in that paragraph.

J - I think the name 'fourth generation warfare' is a bit of a misnomer. 4GW has always been around for centuries in one form of another. It is only more pronounced today as 3GW goes into relative decline after dominating the Western psyche for decades and communications technology enables the political messages of those who wage 4GW.

Adam B. Ricketson said...

This is the most absurd hypothetical from Arkin:

"If its owners are good neighbors..."

That's a big IF. It should actually read "if the owners are "perfect neighbors..."

Given any sort of questionable behavior from the "big guy", any status symbol will become a source of resentment. Given the massive amounts of questionable behavior by the USA in recent years, we don't need more status symbols.