George W. Bush was applauded by conservatives and mocked by liberals for his pronouncement of an Axis of Evil. Consisting of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the Axis of Evil was a construct designed to sell the war in Iraq to a skeptical America. Speechwriter David Frum knew that Americans needed to see a larger than life threat, similar to the one framed by FDR prior to WWII, in order to commit to a new war in the sands of ancient Babylon. He knew, in other words, that we Americans are still imprisoned by the same mindset that came of age through successes in WWII and Korea, and came to maturity in the decades long struggle of the Cold War.
As our nation has matured, we have settled very near the mindset that lost the British their American colonies. As Americans, we are the children of insurgents. We are nothing less than the first successful guerrilla warriors to throw off their colonial masters. We were terrorists in 1776, cutting down Redcoats from cover with our Kentucky Rifles, fighting traditional formations with non-traditional tactics. The erstwhile revolutionaries that are our ancestors earned their freedom (with the help of the French) by outlasting, frustrating, and annoying the British until they finally returned home. But we have reached a point in our national life-cycle where we are the traditionalists. We understand set-piece warfare that results in unconditional surrender. We ignore the realities of unconventional warfare. We forget that other nations, and their citizens, are disinclined to accept the “freedom” of outsiders.
The United States of today is faced, not by an overarching strategic threat, but rather by a torrent of tactical flash-points. Some of these threats are joined by common purpose, but most are isolated by ideology, support, and methodology. The security challenges of our nation have undergone a paradigm shift, but our ability to comprehend and react to them has not. It may continue to be prudent to prepare for a multiple front strategic threat; a scenario with merit, for example, might find the United States facing down China or a resurgent Russia. But the strange twist of our time is that the fall of the Soviet Union deprived us of a less-complicated adversary. The simmering ethnic and religious tensions that were bottled up by the repressive regimes in the former Soviet republics and their client states have exploded onto the world.
The danger to our republic today is caused by that separation between the reality of our threats and the basic civilian assumptions of how we deal with threats. Our professional military told President Bush that it would take twice as many troops as he ultimately committed to Iraq to bring the country under control. The infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner was a political product having nothing to do with military realities. Both the original troop levels and the banner were necessities, however, for a nation accustomed to the war they saw in movies and the Reagan Administration. The political effect on today’s national security decision-making is a crippling condition.
The real question, however, is what form will appropriate military action take in the future? This question should not have anything to do with our nation’s ridiculous and sophomoric ideas of political ideology. Dealing with threats isn’t the sovereign ground of either party. The questions are straightforward; what is the threat, can the threat be defended passively or does it require preemptive action, and what blend of actions are best suited to dealing with the threat? Some threats will, inevitably, require direct military intervention. But not all interventions involve conventional formations at the brigade level.
To put a finer point on the issue, we need to reexamine the rationale for going to war in Afghanistan (as an example) in the first place. Keeping in mind that I was (in 2001) and remain a proponent of our actions in Afghanistan, I do believe that the conventional wisdom that has our nation needing to engage the Taliban directly is flawed. I have heard and read a number of security experts who have put forward the notion that, rather than attempting to engage and destroy every “terrorist stronghold”, it would be better to erect “security firewalls” around them. Direct engagement, no matter how it is handled, causes the collateral damage and bad feelings that terrorists thrive on. Direct engagement also brings with it something else that is harmful to the cause of anti-terrorism; von Clausewitz’s fog of war. The confusion and chaos of warfare is no help to observers tasked with tracking loosely organized terrorists.
The point of this is simply that alternatives exist to our oversimplified American ideal of right and left. The best posture is almost certainly not the open-ended commitments and “shoot first and never ask questions” mentality that seems to define the political right. The best solution is just as unlikely to come from the “let’s talk it out by the campfire” ideals that seem to dominate the political left. The United States is confronted by a monsoon of complex tactical threats; our national posture should not be dominated by political inflexibility and oversimplification. Bluntly stated; an uncompromising and inflexible mentality is the one most likely to kill Americans. Our national defense can’t afford to be dominated by either budget conversations or flag-waving. Mission-oriented policy carried out by properly compensated professionals is the only true “strong on defense” posture for 21st Century America. Tommorow’s post will begin the specific discussion on these tactical threats.
The Rational Middle hopes to see your opinions soon…