Affording the “Pacific Pivot”

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The Obama Administration's "Pacific pivot" emulates Winston Churchill's "economy of force" strategy before World War I.

Former governor Mitt Romney’s drumbeat for $2 trillion in additional defense spending, together with President Obama’s Pacific pivot – the reallocation of American military resources to contain China – turned out to be a non-event in Monday night’s debate.

In fact, the kinder, gentler Romney went so far as to suggest that China doesn’t have to be an “adversary.”

Wearied by more than a decade of expensive, unrewarding military interventions, both candidates sensed that Americans are focused on the approaching fiscal cliff; an event the Congressional Research Service says may produce a return to economic recession in 2013.

In fact, if deeper recession lies ahead, the unspoken truth is that restoring American economic growth and prosperity may well demand austere, “inter-war period” levels of military spending.

So, assuming Romney’s defense buildup is at the very least unlikely is the Obama Administration’s Pacific pivot also a pipe dream the American taxpayer cannot afford?

The answer is: not necessarily. There are ways to concentrate American national military power in the Pacific region.

In the turbulent decade leading up to the outbreak of World War I, Winston Churchill, Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, urged Britain’s national leadership to concentrate British naval power in the Atlantic and the North Sea where Germany’s rapidly expanding high seas fleet seemed determined to challenge British naval supremacy.  Churchill reasoned, “It would be very foolish to lose England in safeguarding Egypt. If we win the big battle in the decisive theater, we can put everything else straight afterwards. If we lose it, there will not be any afterwards.”

On the precipice of sequestration and with the survival of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid at stake, Churchill’s strategic rationale is instructive, particularly for leaders in Washington, D.C., who advocate a U.S. military buildup in the Pacific.

When Churchill made the case for concentrating the British fleet in the Atlantic, he was practicing economy of force, a time honored principle in British military affairs.

In 1902, in the midst of a financial crisis brought on, in part, by the Boer War, London had already turned to Japan for military assistance in blocking Russian expansion in the Far East. By 1911, the Russian threat had disappeared beneath the waters of the Tsushima Strait, but the Anglo-Japanese Treaty still allowed the withdrawal of British naval and ground forces from Asia, facilitating the concentration of British military power in the Atlantic. The result was a debilitating blockade Germany could not overcome throughout the First World War.

Like the British at the beginning of the 20th Century, Washington suffers from a case of “Imperial Overstretch.” Washington needs a new national security strategy, one designed to halt the dissipation of American military resources around the world and to concentrate it wherever it is needed. For the moment, the point of concentration is Asia, where China’s assertiveness opens the door to the kind of instability and potential for strategic miscalculation that is eerily similar to the crises and conflicts that preceded the outbreak of World War I in Europe.

The Pacific pivot was conceived with this point in mind.  However, increased defense spending to expand and modernize military facilities from Alaska to Guam won’t make much sense to voters who fear the country is in a fiscal “free fall” — a race to economic crisis that bailouts can’t stop.

Moreover, there is no reason to assume lawmakers and the next President will cooperate at all after November. Whether anyone in Washington, D.C., is prepared to support the pivot by admitting that most of America’s current military commitments and priorities are legacies of Cold War deployments, as well as, misguided attempts to nation build inside the Muslim World is also an unknown.

As seen throughout Monday night’s debate, Washington’s determination to attack and destroy Islamist terrorism persists, but lawmakers are far more aware today than they were in 2001 that “Islamism” (the reordering of society and government with Islam) of the Sunni or Shiite variety will not create jobs, economic growth or the foundation for effective military power that can genuinely challenge the West.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood cannot change the fact that Cairo’s population of 14 million lives on an infrastructure designed for 2 million. In other words, the Muslim world’s severe social, cultural and economic problems mean that 20 years from now, Africa and the Middle East are likely to lag as far behind the West as they do today.

However, unlike Churchill’s Japanese ally at the beginning of the 20th Century, America’s allies, as well as, our potential rivals for influence and power in Asia, Europe and Latin America, are all at the mercy of the same debt bubble that we are.

This unspoken reality explains in part the reluctance of the nations on China’s periphery, those that feel most threatened (Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam) to actively cooperate with each other let alone invest in the military power necessary to effectively augment Washington’s proposed Pacific pivot.

The strategic goals and priorities the next President sets will decide what national security strategy America’s military executes. But setting specific goals is critical if the pivot is to happen.

When there is no coherent strategy, military action is shaped primarily by the military capability to act, not by attainable military and political objectives or the concrete interests that define them.

America’s weakened economic condition suggests this is no time for leaders in Washington, D.C., to make uninformed decisions regarding defense spending or the use of force in a dispute with a major power like China.

Britain’s strategic principle of economy of force must be applied.

Hopefully, people in both Presidential campaigns are examining ways to achieve strategic advantage in lean economic times, the way Britain did in the critical years before World War I.

Douglas Macgregor is executive vice president of Burke-Macgregor Group, LLC. He is also a retired Army colonel, decorated combat veteran and the author of four books on military affairs.