America is facing threats from all sides, and it is time that we prioritize. The War on Terror has gone on for a decade now, and has now degraded into a search for cave dwelling miscreants. We need to start taking the rise of state powers more seriously.
Islam is not the same kind of threat as China, nor is it as great a threat. While China poses both an indirect and direct threat to the United States, the reason Islamists use terrorism is because they do not have the power to attack us directly. They use asymmetric warfare or terrorist attacks to psychologically enhance their perceived power. We must be careful not to overestimate our enemies, just as we should not underestimate others.
A tributary note on the threat of Islamism is requisite. Islamism poses an extremely serious threat to Americans, in terms of both foreign and domestic acts of terror, and the domestic damage the propagation of Muslim culture would to our freedoms. But Islamism does not have the capability, nor the cultural attractiveness in the United States, to do as much damage as a fully militarized, modernized, and aggressive China.
China has one of the world’s fastest rising economies; much of it predicated on American market consumption and debt, to be sure. Its 2010, the nation’s gross domestic product was $5.88 trillion, and its GDP growth was tops in the world at a rapid 10.46%, tops during a global recession.
No Islamist terrorist group in the world, nor Islamic state power, could even dream of amassing that kind of economic capability. In the modern world, economic capability directly translates into state power. This has even been formalized in the study of international relations as a correlate; the CINC index is a composite of total population, urban population, iron and steel production, primary energy consumption, military expenditure ratio, and military personnel ratio. In 2007, China was rated as tops in the world at .199, United States was second at .142, Russia was fifth at .039, and the terrorist-sponsoring Islamic state of Iran was fifteenth at .0134. Things have gotten much worse for the United States since then, and China has gotten relatively stronger.
The possibility that two or more states could go to war is a base assumption in realist thought, and has implications for how the international system is shaped. While America guts its industrial base, and China builds its industrial base, the former will be in a weaker position to hypothetically go to war with the latter. As the U.S. spends trillions it doesn’t have, monetizing a great deal of debt, the nation devalues its currency, and runs the risk of hyper-inflation. Ensuing economic instability could jeopardize further its sovereign credit rating, potentially to the point when the international bond market refuses to buy U.S. treasuries, and a “run on the dollar” ensues. The result would be the complete fall of the global hegemon, whose citizens’ high-living ways will come to an abrupt, and for some people, shocking end. The economic engine that is the source of power in the modern world will grind to a halt.
The collapse of the U.S. economy would put it in a dire position versus rising powers like China: it would become economically crippled, unable to sustain the welfare state, weakened not only in terms of external, but also internal security, and to top it all off, the United States would owe so much money to China that it would essentially be funding the Chinese military by 2015, as Mark Steyn has pointed out.
America is spending too much fighting the war on terror. A recent Reuters article, citing an academic work calls “Cost of War,” estimated the total spending on the war on (Islamic) terrorism overseas at $3.7 trillion. Let me qualify here that the news piece puts forth the argument that we need more spending on social services, which completely misses the point. With between $50 trillion to $100 trillion in unfunded obligations, the nation should bring its domestic finances more into line with demographic shifts and economic growth. In effect, this entails slashing almost all of it across the board, leaving only services for those who cannot support themselves in a market economy. When a market economy is left alone, the historic trend is for unemployment to be around 5%, or less. Deregulation and a reduction and streamlining of taxes would generate more economic growth and overall state funding, which should be used to fund legitimate functions of government, like a strong and capable military.
In 2010, America led the world in military spending at about $700 billion (4.7% of GDP), which supposedly more than tripled China’s spending at about $200 billion (2.2% of GDP). The Red Dragon’s accounting, however, is notoriously opaque (not that the Pentagon’s is much better), and it is almost certain to be spending far more than it is reporting.
The nuclear era ushered in a period that John Lewis Gaddis called the “Long Peace,” and a stand-off between two world powers marked by low- and mid-level proxy wars. Indeed, Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is often thought as making another true world war highly unlikely. General Eisenhower thought otherwise. His reasoning was that, though nuclear weapons provided an extremely potent deterrent, major wars were still possible and would entail engagement of conventional forces, leaving nuclear war as a last resort. Low-level armed conflict between India and Pakistan confirm that militarized disputes between nuclear powers is not impossible, and should make us very cautious about our assumptions about the possibility of major war between nuclear powers.
Thus American spending at home on vast police powers to prevent “terrorism” – presumably of any kind, but with the backdrop of nationally traumatic acts of Islamic terror, should be assessed with a high level of scrutiny. Washington seems to be playing up the war on terror at home, even as it fights feckless wars abroad. DHS 2012 budget is reported to be a total of $57 billion, which must seem relatively low in light of numbers Americans have become accustomed to, but whose funding is still higher than the reported budget of the entire Russian military, which is the fifth best-funded in the world.
What Americans are getting from the U.S. government so seriously acting on the facetious suspicion that ‘anyone could be a terrorist’ is not clear. What is clear is that the nation’s citizens have seen a serious decline in their civil liberties, despite assertions to the contrary. From TSA patdowns, to wireless phone taps, to search and seizures without probable cause – it is risible to assert that America is as free a country as it was prior to the war on terror. Which brings us to the imminent threat of Islamic terror and the widespread, but bizarre perception that Muslims could ‘take over the country.’
As far as the threat sharia poses to Americans, it is not apparent why Islamic law should be so specific a threat in conservatives’ minds, nor is it clear why Christians think Islam is a persuasive alternative religion for most Americans. Assuredly, there are criminals, many of them African-American, who are converted to Islam while in prison. And there are Muslim moles within the military, like Major Hasan in the Ft. Hood shooting, who do real damage to our military troops and morale. And we should also be concerned about such programs as the Armed Forces chaplain program, whose Muslim faith branch was founded by a convicted financier of terrorism. But utmost we need to protect our Constitutional system of rights from both those who advocate for Islamic law, as well as from its much more prevalent assailants, leftists.
Most of the damage terrorism does to America comes from our overreaction to the menace. We restrict our civil liberties, in tandem with the major problem of political correctness, by going along with the tacit meme that all Americans are equally probable to be terrorists. While the domestic “lone wolf” threat is continuously uttered by politicians and reporters; this is despite the fact that while there are terrorist outliers according to various racial, ideological, and religious backgrounds, of a mere 126 convictions on terrorism-related charges in the past two years, all have been reported to be Muslims. And while mention of potential “right-wing” terror is common in the national media, we hear scant report of presumably ‘non-violent’ leftist terrorists, although environmentalist terror groups like ALF and ELF were called by an FBI counterterrorism expert as recently as 2004 “the most active criminal extremist elements in the United States.”
The damage America is doing to itself fighting the war on terror is thus worse than the threat itself. We are supposed to be defending freedom here; instead, we are defeating freedom at home and trying to force democracy on historically non-civilized peoples in remote areas of the world, expending military lives and billions of dollars, when we should simply be trying to defeat our known enemies. Our well-intentioned but perilously difficult missions in the Middle East to deprive potential terrorists of ‘safe havens’ overstretch American might; and while it may prepare the next generation of military leaders for war, the way these wars have been fought have been at times self-restricted, due to worries about negative public relations and losing “hearts and minds.”
And though it is often held that democracy leads to more general peace, what is often omitted is that it is liberal democracy, a uniquely Western cultural phenomenon, that makes people generally peaceful over time. But in some ways we are damaging that tradition by such acts as invading Libya with the sole intention of removing a madman, who is not worse than Kim Jong-Il, a much more dangerous enemy. (In regards to Saddam Hussein, I am of the mind that after 9-11, many intelligence agencies around the world, and many politicians on both sides of the aisle, did think Hussein had wmds, and was a threat.)
Our exhaustion of financial resources, mainly through the welfare state, but also through long and expensive wars, is hamstringing our ability to prepare for rising powers like China, or aspiring regional hegemons like Russia. Indeed, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen stated in 2010 that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”
We absolutely do need to prepare for nuclear-armed, Islam-inspired terrorism, both here and potentially to be carried out against our allies. In the Middle East, the most serious threat in this regard would be a nuclear Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stated his intention to “wipe Israel off the map,” a threat to U.S. ally Israel that displays the possibility we are not dealing with a rational actor (though there are sound counter-arguments that the president of Iran is playing to a domestic audience by ratcheting up nationalism in lieu of waning public support for the regime). Iran is extremely dangerous beyond its relatively weak military capabilities, as demonstrated by its state sponsoring of terrorism, and strong evidence suggesting the regime has been arming and otherwise assisting the Iraqi counter-insurgency.
But while national security hawks are concerned that Iran is extending its pipeline links into Iraq and Syria, a recent deal that is stoking alarm, the establishment of a pipeline could give Iran even more to lose from provoking an outright, escalated regional conflict. Greater market liquidity for its oil would lead to more resources for Iran to assist terror, this is true; but it would also put the country in a “domain of losses” for lost exports if its bad behavior caused regional instability or serious sanctions.
Expending our time and resources in Libya, and nation-building in the Middle East, seem to be coming at an opportunity cost of exerting strong diplomatic pressure on Iran’s enablers, like China and Russia, and adequately preparing for potential regional aggression from these three powers. Our current economic situation, specifically, our immense debt, severely curtails our ability to wield credible diplomatic pressure short of war. The financial trade-offs of continuing our war on terror as it has been thus far conducted is a matter that should be thoroughly pondered by foreign policy experts in light of our nation’s grave economic conditions.
Foreign policy means prioritization and recognizing that our country has scarce resources. We cannot continue to chase every terrorist and bring to justice every madman around the globe, while circumscribing our own freedoms, and undermining our own economy. Such behavior diminishes more serious threats like Russia and China, and imposes a cost on our ability to prepare for total war. We can fight terrorism in all earnestness, but we should keep an eye on our values, our resources, and our preparedness.