The stated policy for the US military has been the pursuit of so-called full spectrum dominance for some time now. What does this mean in practical terms? It means that the US military desires to be superior to any potential foe in all areas of warfighting/arenas of conflict. Land, sea, air, space, cyberspace and information. It is a well-publicised fact that the budget for the American Department of Defence is greater than half the militaries of the planet. It is the greatest amount of funds available for fighting forces by far. In addition to this there are vast amounts of money hidden in so-called “black budgets” for secret projects.
John W. Dower makes the point in his recent book “The Violent American Century” that the goal of full-spectrum dominance does not necessarily make America safer. According to Dower the US military has personnel in approximately 150 different countries. When we take into consideration that the UN has around 193 member states, that is a tremendous amount of countries to be present in. I can’t imagine any other country having similar presence. At best great military powers such as Russia and China have an interest in their surrounding spheres of influence. If conflict breaks out having forward operating bases and positions as the US does means that you are in a great position to get involved quickly. If that is a normative goal for your country you will be happy with the direction of US foreign policy over the last few decades.
But, there is a problem with this kind of thinking. Being involved in conflicts and trouble spots all over the globe means that there is a higher likelihood of getting dragged into long bogged-down conflicts with outcomes directly opposed to enhanced national security. Your forces are more exposed to harm, people that had never even considered having an opinion about your country begins to harbor resentment due to your involvement in the local conflict and eventual blowback is not an unlikely outcome. There are famous examples of interventions having severe negative outcomes down the road. Arming the Mujahedin rebels in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and occupation seemed like a great idea at the time. An easy way to harm your mortal opponent. What pedagogical lesson did this teach the rebel forces? You can bring a superpower to its knees with economic warfare. A Stinger missile costing a couple of tens of thousands of dollars could bring down a Soviet helicopter or fighter jet costing 10,15,25 million.
The attacks on US interests by radical Islamic terrorists such as the embassy bombings, the first WTC attack, USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks themselves were economic terrorism above all else. The victory for the terrorists didn’t come on September 11, 2001. Rather it came in the US response. Trillions upon trillions of dollars have been spent on military operations in the Middle East and elsewhere and on the national security complex at home. All the economic productivity lost queuing for the security theater that is the TSA is economic harm inflicted by the terrorists. The asymmetrical response to the action of 19 hijackers is the desired outcome. The staggering amount of money that had been tacked on to the US national debt is a deep wound on the long-term viability of the US economic system. Would this long chain of events have been set in motion had the US stayed clear of the Afghan war? Not staging troops out of Saudi Arabia (explicitly mentioned by bin Laden as motivation for his evil deeds)? Or had the US not interfered in elections and regime change in country after country?
If all the US forces had stayed home perhaps the outcome would have been better in the long run for US security. A problem with pursuing dominance is that it necessarily triggers a response from other countries. They become “forced” to step up their military spending to keep up to protect themselves and their perceived interests. That outcome is not necessarily a desirable one from a US viewpoint. Additionally, being technologically vastly superior can have drawbacks. The resentment drone bombings create when civilians are killed is different compared to the feelings created has the same people been killed by conventional forces. Being suddenly attacked by something you couldn’t even see or do anything about creates anger. It is well known that drone strikes are great for terrorist recruitment. The full-spectrum dominance creates new antagonists and foes, and it opens up new arenas of potential conflict and harm for your country.