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Unsteady War-Footing

The lack of U.S. readiness for a war on terrorism is underscored by reading the nation‘s principal military strategy document, the Quadrennial Defense Review.

It’s true, The New York Times praised it as ”strikingly prescient“ in identifying terrorism as the major threat to the United States, but the accolade is undeserved. The QDR, produced once every four years, was being worked on right up to its October 1 release; a new draft was prepared after the September 11 attacks.

Tellingly, the Pentagon‘s summer briefing on the forthcoming document didn’t even mention terrorism. The truth is, the QDR wasn‘t prescient before or after the fact. ”We have lots of war plans,“ says a Pentagon source. ”Well, mainly war plans for Korea and the Gulf.“

An unnamed senior defense official admitted, ”There was one sort of conceptual thought that we did not get into this report, and that is that one of those conflicts could, in fact, be a global terrorism campaign.“

Now that the war on terrorism is here, the military must play catch up. ”In light of the markedly increased requirements associated with the unfolding U.S. war against terrorism, prior estimates of available resources for defense are no longer accurate,“ the QDR states. ”Before the September 2001 attacks, [the Department of Defense] had planned for gradual increases in defense spending . . . At this juncture, the Defense Department is developing new estimates of needed funding, in line with emerging, new military requirements.“

We were clearly hindered by the lack of homeland-security preparations. There was no real procedure for making authorities aware that people on terrorist watch lists were in the country, much less getting flight training; no upgrades of airline security; no plan for responding to hijackings. And the anthrax attacks have made it clear that there was no serious preparation for bioterror.

With the impending onset of the Afghan winter and the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, the failure to plan for a terror war as seriously as for another Korean or Gulf war may lead to months of needless stalemate.

The military is scrambling to deal with the likes of Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda network and its allies, which form a shadowy ”Jihadistan.“ The failure is not the military’s so much as it is a failure of our politics. There has been no serious discussion of post--Cold War defense policies. The old doctrine was maintained through institutional inertia and a paucity of critical thinking on military matters.

The Clinton team continued the old doctrine of focusing on the ability to fight and win two conventional wars in different parts of the world -- the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula. We failed to take seriously talk of ”asymmetric warfare,“ the military term for an opponent who uses forces and techniques that confound our conventional strengths.

Indeed, the Clinton White House bought into the simplistic theory of the 1990s that business and economics dwarf politics and war in significance, so there is no real need to think about military strategy. The Clintonites pursued a doctrine of ad hoc humanitarian militarism, upping the military‘s operational tempo, intervening more often than Bush the Elder -- in Somalia, Iraq, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia -- and provoking serious morale problems. ”What’s the use of having a big military if we don‘t use it?“ then--Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously asked the reluctant then--Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell.

The U.S. failed to deal with the threat posed by bin Laden. Since 1996, he has been based in Afghanistan, when the Clinton administration forced his expulsion from Sudan, where he could be more easily watched. Yet no arrangements were made for basing U.S. aircraft or Special Forces in the area. There were no intelligence assets on the ground to search out bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders, no plans for an anti-Taliban Afghan coalition and no ties to potential Afghan proxy forces.

The Clinton White House found much for the military to do, but it did not revamp it for a very different era of potential threats. Its 1997 QDR was a remarkably status-quo document.

The only serious review took place over the last two years of the administration (indeed, the first major intellectual review since the National Security Act of 1947, which enshrined the post-war security establishment), with the Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, chaired by former Senators Gary Hart (D-Colorado) and Warren Rudman (R--New Hampshire). Hart-Rudman commissioners traveled the world and incorporated futuristic insights into their recommendations, noting the serious problem of American triumphalist attitudes and the rise of expansionist Islamic fundamentalism, predicting over two years ago that America would be the victim of major terrorist attacks. Their report likely would have informed a Gore administration, but that didn’t quite happen.

Where does all this leave us? The war is shaping up pretty much as expected, with limited air strikes and Special Forces operations rather than the straw-man scenario of indiscriminate bombing and full-scale ground invasion. The conflict won‘t be limited to Afghanistan: Intelligence, Special Forces and diplomacy will have to be exquisitely coordinated. It will not be unlike the ”Battle of Europe,“ a bloody shadow war fought by Israel against the terror networks behind the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But it may be happening too slowly.

Sadly, the old new-left refrain about not ”studying war“ is horribly dated. The informed discussion of military strategy is long overdue.


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