Oct

12

To me the most significant lesson of recent international military undertakings has been how a country's taking action risks sacrificing what that country previously enjoyed in the power, reputation and deterrence of potential action.

For example, going back to the 1967 and 1973 wars, the Israeli military had the reputation of being unbeatable by its Arab neighbors. This gave Israel very valuable deterrent protection against its hostile, far more populous enemies.

But when Israel launched a major attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon and was unsuccessful in that Hezbollah was able to fight it to a draw, major damage was done to Israel's military reputation and deterrent power. Israel is now far more vulnerable to attack by hostile neighbors and by major terrorist organizations. With the benefit of hindsight, Israel should never have risked its reputation and deterrent power in a voluntary war unless it was virtually certain of prevailing and thus keeping its reputation for invulnerability and deterrence in effect.

Similarly, after the First Gulf War, the bombing campaign in Bosnia and the impressive early destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US had an awesome reputation of being the world's sole superpower, with virtually unlimited high tech military power several orders of magnitude above that of any other country.

But for the US to undertake a major invasion of Iraq that turns out unsuccessful, to become bogged down in a losing war against militarily unimpressive enemies, has done incalculable damage to the US's ability to cow hostile nations with its military potential. Again with the benefit of hindsight, the US should have thought long and hard about risking the unparalled military reputation and deterrent strength it enjoyed.

Now that the US's perceived military strength and ability to deter is far less, Iran can do what it wants in developing nuclear weapons and funding/arming Hezbollah, and even North Korea can feel pretty safe in its provocations. The degraded military reputation of the US also gives it far less ability to influence Russia and China to help with Iran and North Korea. And Russia can also feel free to strongarm our ally Georgia (the country, not the state) with little or no complaint from the US.

(I am not dealing here with the question, moral or libertarian, of whether the US should be attempting to deter or influence other countries. Only with the question that if it wants to, whether it has the power to do so.)

Finally, the relevance to investing of giving up the power of potential is, I believe, tenuous. It is true that when one moves from cash to a committed investment not easy to sell, one loses the potential to invest in other things or to remain in cash. But there is no reputation or deterrent value that one is giving up, since stocks and other investments are not capable of being threatened or deterred. (Except perhaps in rare cases where an extraordinarily rich investor like Icahn or Kirkorian is threatening to buy a massive amount of a company's stock if the company refuses to do what he wants.)

Prof. Marion Dreyfus replies:

A deterrent power that is never invoked, on the other hand, becomes a straw man, and ankle-biters will proceed to a series of provocations to test the level of tolerance of that so-called massive deterrent potential. Israel had been repeatedly provoked by thousands of Kassams and Katyushas against northern cities, and precisely how many thousands of incursions it can sustain is not an exact science. Nor is it in her interests to permit little gangrenous groups to pick off her soldiers and murder them at will.

This leaves out the concomitant scandalousness of the unpreparedness of the IDF. Both in terms of tank platoons and soldiers guarding the perimeter, there was a feebleness of deployment that stuns most of us familiar with the power of the IDF. A major contributor to the lack of overwhelming force and the triumph of the IDF, too, was the constant effort to save civilians, which is no way to win a war against soulless automata. had the Israelis conducted the war in the way most nations would and do, it would have won inside of a week.

Craig Cuyler replies:

These points could also be related directly to proper means of speculation, ballyhoo deflation and scientific method in trading. The US government has ignored almost every rule of proper speculation and here are just a few off the top of my head:

1. The US got itself into a war based on spurious correlations (the link between Bin Laden and Hussein)

2. Hindsight bias (Bush snr's previous Iraqi war in which the US came out relatively unscathed with its reputation intact)

3. Data mining (the Hunt for WMD's and the Yellow Cake uranium from Niger, both which didn't exist)

4. The doomsday scenario (pre-emptive attack on Iraq would prevent further attacks on US) - Iraq was never going to attack the US it didn't have the means,

5. Trading on tips and unsubstantiated rumours (the US being conned by Big Oil and others with their own agenda),

6. Trading with too much leverage and no risk management (how long can the taxpayer pay for this mess in Iraq, how many more innocent people on both sides must die before the stop loss is hit?).

As Dan says, the situation has weakened America's military position and standing in the global community and the direct beneficiaries are the Iranian Mullahs and psycho's like Kim Jong Ill who are now emboldened to develop their own nuclear arsenals. This is similar to when hedge funds like Amaranth get themselves into trouble and the market knows that it can press its advantage until the protagonist capitulates - this is what Iran, Jordan, Hezbollah, Taliban, North Korea and others will do. When an investor or a speculator puts on a trade for the above reasons there can be only one outcome - failure!

Stefan Jovanovich responds:

The 1973 war (what the Israelis call the "Yom Kippur War" and their opponents call the "Ramadan" or "October" War) was the worst crisis in Israeli military history. Within the first week the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and breached the Bar-Lev fortifications in what was probably the greatest feat of Moslem arms since the Turkish defense at Gallipoli. The Bar-Lev fortifications had cost $500 Million (in today's dollars roughly 1/3rd of the 2007 Israeli defense budget) but they were breached with water cannons, rubber rafts and hand-carried weapons and the battalion holding them was effectively wiped out. There are other details of the war that match the failure of the Bar-Lev line, but it is enough to note that, immediately after the war was over, a special commission headed by Chief Justice Shimon Agranat of the Israeli Supreme Court was appointed to investigate "why Israel had been caught by surprise and why so much had gone wrong during the war itself". The commission's report, completed in January 1975, was highly critical of the performance of the IDF on several levels, including intelligence gathering, discipline within the ranks, and the mobilization of reserves. Among the facts in the report was the disclosure that the IDF needed the emergency airlift of $1 billion of ammunition (in 1973 dollars) from the United States to avoid literally running out of bullets. To gain a proper sense of the scale of this potential disaster, it is useful to know that the entire cost of the war for the Israelis was $5 billion. (One of the bitter reflections that we Viet Nam veterans try to avoid considering is whether the 1975 Democratic Congress would failed to fund the reinforcement of the IDF as cavalierly as they refused to resupply the ARVN.) The Yom Kippur War ended the political future of Moshe Dayan. Ariel Sharon was lucky enough to have retired as commander of the Southern front 3 months before the war began. Had he remained in command, he, too, would have seen the end of his career as a figure in Israeli politics.

The tactical difficulties the IDF experienced against Hezbollah have a great deal in common with the mistakes of the Yom Kippur war. The Israelis badly underestimated the usefulness of anti-tank weapons against infantry (most of the IDF casualties were from blast and shrapnel, not bullet wounds) just as the IDF underestimated the lethality of Sagger missiles.

As for American bombing in Bosnia (sic) (the air strikes were in Serbia proper), the American after-action reports are almost sarcastic in their assessments. The Serbs, displaying their native criminal ingenuity, managed to shoot down an F-15 using cell phones and 1970s-era Soviet missiles. The USAF was unable to even "bounce the rubble" since most of the "targets" destroyed in Kosovo turned out to have been decoys. The U.S. Army had to wait a month to cross the Danube while the combat engineers (not under fire) rebuilt the bridges. When they finally made it across, they discovered (surprise, surprise) that their M1A1s were too heavy for the roads. The war ended General Wesley Walker's military career and began his political one.

Fortunately, both the IDF and the U.S. armed forces have learned from their mistakes and will continue to do so. The wars being fought in Iraq and Lebanon (yes, it is still going on) have taught both militaries that tactical intelligence can no longer sit even at the brigade level; it has to be down at battalion and even company level. Both militaries have also learned that they have to have the ability to jam enemy electronic signals not just in the air but at the street corner level. These are revolutions in military affairs comparable to the development of armor and automatic weapons.

To conclude  that "US's (and, I presume, Israel's) perceived military strength and ability to deter is far less" is to go against all the known facts of what those countries' enemies are actually doing. Both the Russians and Chinese are working as fast as they can to abolish conscription and reduce overall troop strengths. Both have effectively conceded to the Americans permanent air and space superiority by ending their next generation fighter programs. The field strength of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Taliban and the Baathists has been reduced to the level of banditry and local thuggery, and their internal documents speak of reduced levels of financial and military support and, in some cases, of outright despair. Their only hope is to win the battle of CNN.

I can go on, but what would be the point. That the New York Times and Washington Post and CNN remain unaware of what is actually going on in the Middle East and East Asia is hardly surprising, given the fact that their correspondents no longer spent any time in the field but leave that to their native stringers. That members of the list continue to retail the daily "everyone knows" historicisms of the "authoritative press" is disappointing.

Laurence Glazier replies:

More than 20 years ago, I remember reading media assessments that Israel was unlikely to survive more than a few years. I think this is still a good case to be contrarian. Other things being equal, Israel is and will even more so be one of the economic powerhouses of the present century.

There are — as ever — challenges.

Aumann may shine in game theory and bible code analysis but Buffett gets the nod in buy and hold.

J. Klein replies:

It was not only media assessment. 30 years ago I bought land in Israel, and all my friends advised against it, Israel couldnt last, too much risk, what a meshugge thing to do. It turned out to be a hit, by far.

Israel government has announced that it is planning a second wave of settlement erradication. The idea is to cut ourself free from our turbulent, violent, suicidal, no-good neighbors by a good fence. It is only expectable that Prof. Aumann, a believer, would argument against it, since we are giving up land aka Promised Real Estate.Nobel Prize does not make him a prophet, and less so in his hometown.


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