Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Total War?

Over at The Victorious Opposition there is an interesting post presenting four hypothetical scenarios and asking whether or not readers would support "total war" in response. Total war is defined as,
a war in which our vital interests are at stake, we mobilize our full strength, the enemy commands a modern state, and the war has more of a global or hemispheric rather than a simply regional nature.
I wouldn't call that total war myself, just a major war. I think total war has other implications. But given that definition, here are the scenarios:
1. China attempting to overrun Taiwan?
2. Iran detonating a nuclear weapon in Israel?
3. North Korea sinking an American vessel (something small like a frigate) with a submarine?
4. Russia invading any ex-Soviet republic NATO member nation in the same way it did to Georgia?
In my opinion, only two of those scenarios would likely produce a truly major war of the type the writer is describing: numbers 1 and 4. Here are my answers.

1. It depends on the overall circumstances. In my opinion, China's overall power is grossly exaggerated by many vis a vis the United States. I do not believe China is capable of pulling off the type of massive amphibious assault that would be necessary to overrun Taiwan, with even minimal, largely deniable U.S. involvement. On the other hand, China is certainly capable of unleashing a devastating missile barrage in an attempt to pound Taiwan into submission. Should the U.S. go to war in a major way to save Taiwan? It's a difficult call, and I can't say for certain without more details of the overall picture. Taiwan is a a long-standing ally of the U.S. In my view, loyalty to allies who have been loyal to us is extremely important. We should certainly not sit idly by while China hammers Taiwan. But risking nuclear war for Taiwan is another matter.

2. If Iran detonates a nuclear weapon in Israel, I fully expect Iran to be devastated by an Israeli nuclear response. I don't see this scenario as a major war situation for the U.S. Compared to the United States, even an Iran armed with a some nuclear weapons is extremely weak. Even using conventional weapons, if the gloves were off, the U.S. could cripple Iran, while suffering only regional damage. Should Iran manage to pull off an amazing nuclear first strike that utterly destroyed Israel and its entire nuclear force, I would definitely support a massive retaliatory strike of either a conventional or nuclear variety. A third-rate power such as Iran could not be permitted to destroy a major U.S. ally and get away with it.

3. Again, I don't see this as a major war scenario of the type described -- unless China backed North Korea -- it's a major war, but a regional one. If North Korea dared openly sink a U.S. vessel, I would definitely support a declaration of war. I would also support a first strike with tactical nuclear weapons if necessary to ensure that North Korean nuclear weapons are not used against us. If they covertly sank a U.S. vessel, as with the South Korean one, I would opt for lesser but still violent measures, such as hunting down every North Korean submarine, and possibly bombing submarine bases.

4. I think this and number 3 are probably the most likely of the four scenarios, and this one is the most avoidable. I was not and am not a fan of expanding NATO to include small, weak former Soviet republics. Some allies are not worth having. It would be a disaster if one of these countries, places outside our vital interests, dragged us into a major war with Russia. Should such a scenario develop, I would try to get unified NATO support in an attempt to intimidate the Russians into backing down. If the rest of NATO goes wobbly, I would probably support some attempt to find a way for the U.S. to also weasel out of its treaty obligations.


  1. I could see #4 as the only scenario possibility leading to total war. #1 may lead to regional conflict, but China and the USA are far to economically intertwined to wage war on each other. Both would loose more then they would gain.

    2&3 would lead to major regional conflicts that would require a massive expansion of our military; but Iran and NK are small enough countries to not require a total war.

  2. I would never bet on rationality when it comes to why wars start. The Taiwan issue is dangerous because it involves Chinese nationalism & irredentism, an extremely volatile combination.