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Strategic Triage and the True Cost of War: Supporting Enduring Commitments versus “Endless Wars”


There are good reasons why the United States should constantly reexamine the cost of its military commitments and deployments overseas, and especially of its active uses of military force. The U.S. may not face endless wars, but it does face endless threats and instability. History has not ended and will not end, and “Globalism” has not put the world on a path towards growth, progress, peace, and stability.

The ISIS territorial “Caliphate” may be gone, but ISIS, its affiliates tied to its global network, Al Qaida, and a host of other extremist and terrorist movements survive. No MENA, South Asian, or Central Asian country has made a major reduction in the political, economic, or demographic causes of instability that triggered the political upheavals in the Arab World in 2011 or that shape the future of all too many countries in the developing world.

Defeating one movement in one location does not secure even a single country in the face of continued failures in politics, governance, economic, and demographics that have been the source of extremism, uprisings and civil war. And, these same failures affect all too many countries in the rest of Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. The U.S. cannot afford to ignore these forces, let them destabilize the global economy, or become direct threats to the United States.

It is all too clear from the analyses of given countries made by the bodies like the UN, IMF, World Bank, and CIA that many of the fracture lines between and within states, are causes of instability that are “structural” in the sense that they are likely to last for at least one more decade and evolve into other challenges for at least several decades more.

It is also clear from the actions of countries like Russia that other states will exploit such failures and fracture lines to serve their own interests and use them against the United States. The U.S. not only faces direct military and economic challenges and competition from states like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, it faces “gray area” challenges from these and other potentially hostile states in other countries throughout the world.

The U.S. can certainly choose its conflicts, its strategic partners, and the way it deploys and fights far more wisely. Cost is only one factor in making such choices, and the strategic value of fighting a given war is almost inevitably determine by the political and military benefits of its outcome rather than its price. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, there are few benefits to be gained from knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The United States should refine and improve its current pattern of global engagements, and its current active military engagements. The U.S. cannot survive, however, as a major, modern global economy and retreat from the world while other competitors seek to expand their influence through the global economy and develop their military capabilities. It cannot turn away from its role as a global power and rely on random and arbitrary withdrawals and force cuts, and focus on transactional burden sharing. This can only end in making the U.S. its own worst enemy.

Neo-isolationism is not a viable option, but neither is repeating America’s past mistakes. On the one hand, the United States can only secure its position by maintaining effective defense, deterrence, and the selective use of force. On the other hand, the U.S. must make hard choices as to where it makes commitments, exercises “strategic triage” to put its forces where they are most effective, and accepts the fact that it can neither police the world or eliminate every source of risk.

This analysis focuses on two of the key trends in the cost of war that must be considered in making such choices. First, it focuses on the key issues which affect the current U.S. debate over its “long wars.” It examines the financial and warfighting impacts of the changes in American methods of war fighting. It shows that the U.S. has already made critical changes in its military posture that have already greatly reduced the cost of U.S. involvements in the Afghan and Iraq/Syria conflicts, and shown that the U.S. can find affordable ways to fight such wars.



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Sources of Information: 

Center for Strategic and International Studies

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