The Price of Expediency

President-elect Barack Obama confronts stark choices in U.S. foreign and defense strategy. A fourth Indo-Pakistani war is brewing, and this time, both states have nuclear weapons. Given the determination to commit more conventional ground forces to Afghanistan, a narco-state without a legitimate central government that shares an open border with Pakistan, choosing wisely is vital.

Today’s world is different from the world of 1991 or 2001. Out side of the United States and Western Europe, nation-building with U.S. military power is a euphemism for imperialism. America can financial hegemony has collapsed. As seen in Iraq, the “total victory” construct as it equates to the imposition of Western-style government and a free-market economy subservient to the U.S. is in full retreat.

In the broader Middle East, as well as in most of Africa, Latin America and Asia, “damage control,” not “total victory,” is the most realistic goal for U.S. nation al security strategy.

India’s looming conflict with Pakistan, along with Russia’s recent scrap with Georgia, may be a fore­taste of future wars, rather than the insurgency model some mistakenly believe we have mastered. In fact, conflicts in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East are more likely to resemble the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, except that future wars for regional power and influence will overlap with the competition for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create.

But these conflicts need not in volve the United States. In fact, direct military involvement in future conflicts, where the United States itself is not attacked and its pros perity and security are not at risk, should be avoided. Otherwise, the United States risks repeating Britain’s mistake in 1914: overesti­mating its national power by in volving itself in a self-defeating war it does not need to fight, and precipitating its own economic and military decline.

When word reached Britain on Aug. 1, 1914, of Germany’s mobilization for war, Winston Churchill recorded of the British Cabinet, “At least three-quarters of its mem drawn into a European quarrel unless Great Britain was herself at tacked, which was unlikely.” German-speaking and English-speaking peoples had a long history of cooperation, not conflict.

British leaders also knew the English Channel and the massive Royal Navy made a German channel crossing impossible.

However, war was popular with the British people, whose recent experience was limited to a short conflict with the Boers in South Africa, a valiant but vastly outnumbered and comparatively weak enemy. Ultimately, the feeling of limitless power combined with the new idea that Britain had a moral obligation to save her historic enemy, France, from defeat.

In the end, Britain’s human losses were staggering; one in 16 British men between 15 and 50, or nearly 800,000 died. Paying for Britain’s participation in World War I led to a tenfold increase in Britain’s national debt. Paying the interest alone consumed half of British government spending by the mid-1920s.

Britain’s Pyrrhic victory cost the British people their national power, their standard of living, and, in less than 20 years, their empire.

Had anyone in London’s leader ship stopped to seriously examine what outcome it was they wanted to achieve with military power, and what military capabilities were at their disposal to do so, it is doubtful they would have reached the decisions they did.

After the decision to fight was made, Field Marshal Sir Herbert Kitchener, the newly appointed British minister of war, briefed the British Cabinet. He stunned Britain’s leaders with the news that their empire would have to maintain an army of millions, the war would last for at least three years and that it would be decided on the continent, not at sea.

Britain’s leaders, including Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, believed a war with Germany would be short, and the Royal Navy, not the British, French and Russian armies, would decide its outcome.

The possibility that Britain’s small, professional army could not sustain a war with Germany and Austria for more than a few months, that Germany would de cline to fight on Britain’s terms (at sea), and that the war on land would consume Britain’s national wealth did not seem to occur to most of the Cabinet members until Kitchener made his presentation.

How did this happen? The British interpreted the world that existed beyond their empire in ways that flattered Britain’s national self-image of limitless money and power.

The lesson for Obama is instructive: When national military strate gy fails to answer the questions of purpose, method and end-state, military power becomes an engine of destruction not just for its in­tended enemies, but for its supporting society and economy. If the price of victory is potentially excessive, then the use of force should be avoided.

Changing how America thinks about the use of force won’t be easy, but Obama needs to do it.

The 21st century is no time for misinformed decisions.

Douglas Macgregor, a former U.S. Army colonel who contributed a chapter, encapsulated here, to the new anthology, “America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress,.”