WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- "Opportunity cost" is a term economists use to describe the price of not doing something: the consequences of choosing one thing and thus forgoing another.
A consumer who drives to work each day must buy a car and pay expenses like insurance, garage bills and gas. The benefits of the car are obvious, but they come at the cost of other possible purchases, like a remodeled kitchen or a new home closer to work.
People make decisions with opportunity costs dozens of times a day, often with little or no reflection. Most times this does not matter -- the decisions are small and so are the consequences. But every so often the consequences are huge and lasting, and when that happens, the risks and rewards must be weighed and the consequences of choosing incorrectly seriously considered.
The U.S. military is now in such a period. As military chiefs describe Iraq in a "fragile and reversible" state and the nation's collective attention moves toward rising difficulties in Afghanistan, there is a debate heating up -- visible mostly on the pages of military journals, at Washington think tanks and in defense colleges -- on issues that will directly affect the lives of American troops and their families, the welfare of developing nations and the influence America projects around the world.
The debate centers on this question: Should the U.S. military adapt its institutions to reflect the hard lessons learned in Iraq? And second, but no less important, does America wish to engage in nation-building?
It may be surprising that the answers individuals give to these questions are not neatly predictable along political lines. Many of those who opposed the Iraq War on the grounds that it was fought on the basis of faulty or perhaps cherry-picked intelligence would now have U.S. forces draw down there to intervene in more humanitarian causes like Darfur. But the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed the broader War on Terror, would be central to precisely that sort of protracted undertaking.
Meanwhile, those who claim ousting Saddam Hussein was a legitimate end based on the proposition that pre-emptive wars should be fought to protect America's strategic interests or punish those who harbor terrorists -- essentially the Bush doctrine -- might oppose using American troops to "police the world," protecting schoolchildren in Myanmar or building hospitals in Haiti. But it was their decisions that pushed the military into a conflict in which its lack of capability in stability and peace-building operations was painfully obvious.
The coming change of administrations presents a natural opportunity to reconsider the familiar but fading admonition that the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, and so too must America's willingness to confront its enemies. At this historic juncture, it is worth asking: Do Americans actually still believe this? And if so, are they willing to pay the price -- measured in troops, time and money -- as well as the price of not doing something else?
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who took over after Donald Rumsfeld resigned following the midterm elections in 2006, represents to many Democrats and Republicans alike the levelheaded practitioner one would hope to find at the top of the military. In his speeches he reveals that he is a balanced man, if anything.
But at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs earlier in the year, Gates criticized what he deemed to be a lack of balance in the military, an ailment he diagnosed as "Next War-itis." Harmful enough to be given the suffix of an illness, but one sounding more chronic than debilitating, Gates was describing the tendency of the military establishment to focus on future wars to the detriment of preparing for and fighting the wars America currently finds itself in.
In September, in another speech, this one at the National Defense University, Gates again picked up this issue and expounded upon it.
"When referring to 'Next War-itis,'" Gates explained, "I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible to do so -- and the overwhelming majority of the people in the Pentagon, the services and the defense industry do just that. My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide, both short term and long term, all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today."
It may seem odd that a defense secretary would find it necessary to say to the military, essentially, "Win the wars you're fighting." But it's not quite as simple as that. Gates is walking a tightrope between adapting to the realities of a complex world today and hampering the ability to deter or respond to large-scale, conventional conflicts in the future.
And in doing so, he's asking: Is the country more likely to see another Iraq or Afghanistan -- a failed state in need of fundamental rebuilding -- than it is to see a conventional war with a belligerent state, like China or Russia? Gates, and many others, says yes.
"It is true that the United States would be hard-pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I've said before, where on Earth would we do that?" Gates asked.
And despite Russia's recent mischief in Georgia, which ignited in many renewed fears of the Cold War, Gates explained in his speech that the Kremlin's motivations and capabilities differ greatly today and are a result of "a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate their 'near abroad' -- not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe."
As such, Gates said, the U.S. response must not be a return to the military and nuclear buildup seen in the 1980s.
Instead, Gates is touching on the issue of whether the adaptations that have occurred over the last five to seven years as American troops adjusted their tactics, equipment and weaponry in Iraq and Afghanistan -- thus far paid for through emergency supplemental bills outside the baseline defense budget -- should be institutionalized.
While few question the effectiveness of the tactics, there are those asking whether the military should really be a one-stop shop for nation-building. And they worry that as U.S. troops build roads, pick up trash, provide electrical generation and train police, they lose their ability to fight and win the wars of tomorrow.
(Part 2: Defense transformation)
(Medill News Service)