A once-fashionable subject in America’s think tanks was futurology, supposed to be a fruitful method for foreseeing the future (or “possible futures” as it was put at the time). It worked by projecting what were thought to be plausible developments in the situation of a given subject by way of a narrative that would lead to a series of “branching points,” expected eventually to lead the analyst to unforeseen conclusions about what could happen.
Unexpected developments actually were fairly uncommon, since nearly everyone who played the game started with a bias toward one or another desirable outcome (or toward a particularly undesirable one that would demand immediate preventive measures to which the analyst had a professional or political commitment). If you were in favor of building missile defenses, your scenarios tended to run to future missile threats to the U.S.
The second problem with the technique was that people are not really very imaginative, and the grip of conventional wisdom is hard to loosen. Ask people today about the geopolitical future and they nearly always will bring up a Chinese superpower threat, or a resurgent Russia threat, taking us back to the familiar terrain of the Cold War.
Rule out those two possibilities, and scenario writers today generally will propose some kind of explosive increase in terrorist attacks. For example, one popular scenario is that al-Qaida seizes Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and attacks America. Another, long popular among neoconservatives, is that terrorist infiltrators incite the Muslim minorities in Western Europe to rise up, overthrow existing European governments, and establish a new Grand Caliphate incorporating all of Europe and Central and South Asia, with all their resources, and America is left beleaguered.
I don’t know how many people in Washington take this last threat seriously, but there have been think-tank seminars to discuss the possibility, and books on the subject.
These and other commonly described future threats are ones that could badly damage the United States if they occurred, but rarely is a scenario offered with which an aroused America could not cope. This goes without much thought because of the automatic assumption that there is nothing with which the most powerful nation on Earth can’t cope.
There assuredly is nothing that it cannot destroy. But destroying is not the same thing as coping. Let us consider the situation in Iraq, where there still are some 130,000 U.S. troops, most of them scheduled to withdraw over the next year and a half.
These days, a small but real possibility of an Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities exists. One big reason Washington has opposed this is that an obvious Iranian riposte to what would be seen as an American-facilitated attack would be a ground assault on the U.S. forces in Iraq, and on those forces’ logistical routes to Kuwait.
This would presumably be combined with operations in the Persian Gulf and its Arabian Sea approaches to deny these waters to naval operations meant to evacuate U.S. forces. The threat to conventional naval vessels of masses of fast, advanced-rocket-armed speedboats and Zodiacs has been widely discussed in naval circles, and the U.S. Navy has gamed the threat, reportedly with disquieting results.
Turning to the second American war currently under way, consider the possibility that supporters of the Taliban might supply it with modern ground-air missiles, just as the U.S. supplied such weapons to the anti-Russian mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. These could cripple helicopter and fighter-bomber air support for U.S. and NATO forces.
Suppose an unfriendly Russia then terminated its overflight agreement that allows American and NATO aircraft to supply allied forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan via Central Asian air routes. The Pakistan government simultaneously becomes so weakened by Taliban offensives, the activities of other Islamist forces, and Balochistan separatist unrest that the American forces’ land communication routes to the south and east no longer function. The Pakistanis are in the same plight as the Americans trapped in Iraq.
Now all of this is perfectly normal futurology/war-gaming, and one can be sure that nothing I have suggested has failed to be foreseen and analyzed by military and naval staffs. But the overall conclusion that leaps up from the paper in this analysis is that the more wars you undertake abroad, the more places you intervene and the more bases you build around the world, the less secure you are.
The Pentagon has been ringing the world with U.S. bases, meant to make the U.S. secure and able to strike down any threat to American interests, anywhere. There are currently more than 800 manned U.S. foreign military bases. Taken all together, they make up a formidable global array of power. But practically every one of them could be picked off by a hostile military operation. Are they keeping America secure? I would argue that every one of them is an American vulnerability.