They All Want Us Out…Until They Don’t
- Posted by Leigh Drogen
- on November 24th, 2010
I have made my case here, repeatedly, that despite calls from both around the world, and at home, the continued presence of the United States military overseas is of utmost importance. The recent provocation by North Korea against the south is yet another example of how quiet these voices get when low and behold, the United States military is needed to “calm shit down”.
As we speak an aircraft carrier strike group has been dispatched to the East China Sea to stage exercises with the South Koreans. In other words, we sent a whole carrier group over there to tell the North Koreans to back the hell off else they will be dealing with us as well, a strategy that works about 99% of the time the world over. It’s one thing to get involved with South Korea if you are the north, it’s another thing to fire on an American ship, we don’t take those kinds of things well, and believe me, setting off a war on the Korean peninsula is the VERY LAST thing the North Koreans want.
Not to get all high and mighty political scientist on you here, but I think a little classic international relations theory lesson is in order here. Many believe that the midget ruler of North Korea is either insane, reckless, and can’t be trusted to act rationally. I completely disagree. In fact, from my time studying war theory and international relations, I have come to believe that brutal dictators are actually some of the most rational actors you’ll find out there. Why? Because all those who rise to power are concerned with only one thing, losing it. And when you’re dealing with losing ultimate power, you need to act rationally. Now, don’t confuse rationality with being a decent human being, those two things are not connected in any way. These people wake up every day and think about one thing, what do I have to do to stay in power and alive, that’s it. Yes, honor (for self and country) does come into play, but it is almost always superseded by the desire to stay in power.
For Kim that may mean that he needs to display honor for country in order to stay in power via keeping his top generals in line. So he launches a little skirmish on an island in South Korea. It’s just enough to say, hey I do whatever I want, but not enough to cause China to slap him upside the head, or to provoke a real backlash from the south which might cause more harm when he gets his ass whooped. Kim’s belligerent act this week was calculated perfectly in my opinion, just as many other of his actions have been. He is playing his cards (not great ones) perfectly to get what he wants.
So when dealing with dictators like Kim, or that schmuck in Iran, realize that we are looking at completely rational actors. Once you’ve crossed that hurdle, it’s much easier to form a likewise rational strategy for dealing with him. The truth is that there really are no great options for dealing with the midget, he has put himself in a great position of strength and has the ability to preserve the status quo if he chooses. He has enough artillery pointed at Seoul to level it, completely, in about three hours. Nuclear weapons don’t even need to come into the discussion here because of that fact, his artillery shells might as well be nuclear, it doesn’t matter, Seoul is gone and that is something neither side will ever risk. Why? Because if Seoul is gone, so is Kim, at the hands of our military, in a matter of hours we will wipe that country clean off the map. Both sides know this, which is why we will continue to have the status quo.
So back to our original discussion about US military presence around the world. All of the sudden these voices are very quiet in South Korea are they not? Yes, the south does in effect sit under our nuclear umbrella, but that has always been a rather shaky idea. Are we willing to use a nuclear weapon to prevent the capital of another country on the other side of the world from being leveled? Thankfully this idea was never tested during the cold war as the Soviet Union never had enough balls to put it to the test. I say not enough balls, but I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, in my opinion they were very rational, and very smart, did the calculation are realizes that it wasn’t worth it for them to test it, a wise choice. This is the same line of thinking China takes over Taiwan, not worth it to risk seeing if we will hold to our word.
So if we’re taking full scale war off the table in just about every instance, what’s left that is rational in many cases? Exactly what we’re seeing, small skirmishes, or large wars away from major capitals important to international trade (Africa, parts of the Middle East, parts of South East Asia, parts of Central and South America). There aren’t many places to fight a proxy war these days are there? The world is too interconnected for large powers to risk upsetting the flow of trade for some stupid war. When we need to fight, we fight in places that don’t risk that. And when a skirmish breaks out in someplace that we can’t risk the fighting, like South Korea, we rush over there as a show of force to “calm shit down”. It is literally our presence that does it, nothing more.
Let me introduce you to the trip wire theory. During the cold war we stationed about 40,000 soldiers in West Germany with relatively little armor. Why? Not to stop the Soviets from invading Western Europe, but to be killed in case they did. Yes, you heard that correctly, we put 40,000 men in the line of the Soviet military to be sacrificed. We did this as a trip wire, we both knew that if the Soviets wanted to invade Europe, they were going to have to first take down 40,000 men of ours, and it was no secret what the result of that would be. It was an extremely smart strategy on our part, in fact it was so good that if we hadn’t give Western Europe a nuclear umbrella guarantee, it would not have mattered. Killing 40,000 men of ours would have automatically thrown us in to the fight for Europe whether we liked it or not, we would have had no choice. This was not a bluff, this was the real deal, and the Soviets were smart enough to understand it.
In a very very smaller way, sending a carrier battle group to the Korean peninsula is the same. By placing ourselves in between the two sides, we are making the stand that a further provocation would lead to a result North Korea is not looking for, our complete involvement in the situation. The same can be said for the Taiwan Straights at times.
In this way, the United States military is the underwriter of global peace. We are the only power that has the naval assets with the capability to project power far and wide enough to do this. China is on its way to building a very capable naval fleet, but it is nowhere near our ability at this point. It is my hope that at some point they are. In my mind it would be wise for the United States to give up that crown to China, not only for fiscal purposes, but for the purpose of peace and economics. When China has as much at stake seeing that issues don’t get out of hand as we do (that time is getting close), the threat of violence will decrease measurably. For now China is the silent hand that slaps North Korea’s wrist while we are the loud stick which waves over that wrist ready to break it.
What would scare North Korea the most? How about a joint Chinese, US, and South Korean military exercise. That would scare the living daylights out of them, more than pointing missiles ever could.
At the end of the day our military is needed around the world, to act as trip wires. It is us who underwrites economic stability around the world, and there is no one to take that crown. So although I agree that we need to manage our debt, and need to realign military spending to better focus on this objective, those who call for across the board 20-30% cuts in military spending our out of their freakin gords. And to those around the world who would wish that the US military go home and vacate bases situated inside their sovereign land, think twice about how much better off you’d be without the American trip wire.
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Leigh Drogen is the founder and chief investment officer of Surfview Capital, LLC, a New York based investment management firm employing an intermediate term long/short momentum strategy. More »
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