Which New War To Fight?

by Eric Margolis

Recently by Eric Margolis: Hysteria Over Kim's Nukes

In the colorful, pithy Scottish language, there's a delightful expression, "greet an' gurn." Which means to loudly moan and groan.

That's what's happened this week across the United States as the fiscal Ides of March grow close. On March 1, unless Congress and the White House come to an agreement on cutting taxes and/or spending the dreaded "Sequestration" takes effect.

According to this plan promulgated by President Barack Obama, automatic federal spending cuts over 10 years of $1.2 trillion will take effect, with $85 billion hitting in 2013.

Listening to all the special interests moan and groan, one would think it's the end of the world for poor America – a giant leap backwards into the Stone Age. Everyone agrees the dangerous US budget deficit must be cut – provided cuts come out of someone else's hide.

Claims are made that al-Qaida will attack Kansas City if military spending is cut, or the Chinese will seize Hawaii. Consumer spending will fall, warn critics, sending the US economy backwards – even though the respected Congressional Budget Office estimates the total sequester will only cause a small .6% drop in consumer spending.

America will grind to a halt, claim doom-sayers.

Granted, $1.2 trillion is a lot of money, even by Washington's standards. But it's not as catastrophic as the huge number suggests. The Federal Budget is $3.6 trillion and GDP $16 trillion annually. The $85 billion in cuts mandated for 2013 are not a big percentage of the huge US economy. The Pentagon's total combined budget alone is around $1 trillion annually.

Most Americans, grown deeply cynical by the cowardice and doubletalk of their politicians, expect a last-minute deal between the president and Congress to kick down the road really painful spending cuts. The axe won't fall until they are long gone from office.

The loudest cries of anguish are coming from Washington and its suburbs where the so-called "Beltway Bandits" – the colonies of private contractors and intelligence agencies, and America's military-industrial complex that feed off government. There may actually be some real cuts in America's military spending, which accounts for almost 50% of world military spending.

Horror-stricken military contractors are waiting to see where the axe will fall: the impossibly expensive F-35 fighter, new navy carriers and surface ships, ground forces, anti-missile systems – the list is endless.

Military cuts raises a key strategic question: for what new war should the Pentagon prepare? The old Cold War plan of the US being able to fight 2.5 wars simultaneously, is gone for good. The choice facing the Pentagon is: to plan and equip for more colonial-style energy wars in the Muslim world, or to get ready to confront China in the Pacific. No two conflicts could be more different.

Before World War I, the British Empire's colonial armies were trained and armed to put down "native" uprisings. They were very good at this. But when Britain's colonial troops had to face German regulars in Flanders, they were slaughtered and nearly defeated.

The US faces this same problem. Ground and air units configured to hunt guerillas in Afghanistan and Iraq will be useless in a Pacific conflict. All the tens of billions poured into anti-guerilla arms and equipment will be useless. Confronting China will mean more $25 billion-apiece aircraft carriers and surface battle groups, more drones and satellite systems, more Marines and Pacific air bases.

So the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, whose budgets doubled after the 9/11 attacks, face a serious diet; and they must decide on which war to plan for.

Having just been defeated in the $2 trillion Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Pentagon may actually be relieved to go back to conventional warfare against Chinese targets they can identify.

But if the choice is China, the Pentagon will need 5-10 years to re-equip and rearm its forces for the Pacific. And, of course, trillions in new spending. Military competition with increasingly high-tech China in its backyard will prove ruinously expensive. What's more, American forces have become too costly to use in war, as Iraq and Afghanistan showed. The US has grown soft and flabby fighting small nations with no air power: China will prove a very different story.