December 1, 2005  

The ‘who’ question

The many defense reviews of the post-Cold-War era, beginning with the first Bush administration’s “Base Force” plan, have couched themselves in the language of “capabilities” rather than threats. It’s been as if security strategy in the 21st century was all about us, self-referential. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff back then, Gen. Colin Powell, summarized the Base Force as a “sign that says, ‘Superpower lives here.’” And so much of the enthusiasm for defense “transformation” captured the idea that the U.S. armed forces — “proved” to be the most dominant on the planet if not in human history by the “rapid, decisive” operations of the 1990s — could become so superior that no enemy would dare risk a confrontation. “Don’t even think about it!” was the message we hoped to transmit.

It’s been a vision of war curiously divorced from politics. And it retains a strong hold on the American imagination. After 30 months in Iraq, we still have a hard time seeing who the enemy is, not only when it comes to tactically templating his order of battle — which is bound to be a slippery business — but in understanding his political and strategic goals.

We’ve also had difficulty in sorting out who our friends really are. Yes, the “special relationship” with Great Britain is reliable — though it’s a question of what will happen after Prime Minister Tony Blair finally retires. But the larger Atlantic alliance with continental Europe has withered, perhaps to a point beyond reclamation, not simply because of petty bickering but because of more profound policy differences over the Middle East and China. These differences cannot be easily patched over. Thus, our preferred approach to alliances has seemed to be, in the immortal words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, building “coalitions of the willing.”

Yet preserving — or expanding, as we are attempting to do in Iraq and Afghanistan — the post-Soviet “Pax Americana,” a liberal international order global in scale, is a big job, even for the world’s sole superpower. So in the past several years, the Bush administration has surreptitiously begun to talk more pointedly about enemies and allies, about specific threats, wars in reality rather in theory, and a practical approach to building coalitions that are not simply willing but able and perhaps durable.

This shift is visible in this month’s issue of AFJ, which, in addition to addressing the proper future role of the U.S. Air Force and Navy, looks equally in depth at our bitterest foe — al-Qaida and its leadership — and one of our best friends — Japan. This is a trend that we intend to continue; the process of transformation is, we believe, as much geopolitical and strategic as it is militarily operational and tactical.

Indeed, the Pentagon’s mantra — “We don’t know who or where we’re going to fight, but we know how we’re going to fight” — would seem to have it exactly backward. War is not an abstract weighing of capabilities; it’s a far more complex, contingent and volatile mix, whose outcome often can come down to decisions and mistakes made by a single commander or leader. Until we can distinguish friend from foe — or potential foe — it’s going to be harder to make sensible defense planning choices. In a strategic vacuum, one capability is as good as another.

When it comes to al-Qaida, the “who” has determined the “where” and the “how,” not the other way around. Responding to the attacks of Sept. 11, there was very little alternative than to invade Afghanistan, unseat the Taliban government and deprive al-Qaida of its sanctuary there — though it should be remembered there was a short moment where we asked the Taliban to give up Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants as a way to avoid invasion.

It should also be remembered how difficult it was to begin to contemplate a step so drastic; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was quite right to tell the 9/11 Commission that, in the political environment of the 1990s, a large-scale attack, let alone an invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, was not in the cards. Indeed, many Americans thought the “pinprick” cruise missile strikes on al-Qaida camps were needlessly provocative. Even after the Sept. 11 attacks, the distinguished English military historian John Keegan warned the Bush administration that any operation beyond a punitive raid against Afghanistan would fail. Afghanistan was still regarded as “the graveyard of empires.” But to get at al-Qaida and bin Laden directly, there was no alternative.

Nor was there much alternative in the “how” of the invasion. Given the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks, there was a tremendous sense of urgency, not only within the Bush administration but in the American public, about a quick response. Indeed, the need for speed drove the administration to spurn the Article V offering of NATO to participate in the invasion. And to read Bob Woodward’s almost day-by-day account of the decision-making process is to see how the president and his senior advisers followed the minutiae of deployment. Every CIA operative, every Special Forces detachment, every search and rescue was tabulated meticulously and at the highest levels. Gen. Tommy Franks’ plan for a methodical campaign was of no interest to an administration in a hurry.

The “who” question has also dominated strategy-making after Afghanistan, beginning with Iraq. Of course, the desire to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen is the prime example of this, and the Pentagon’s optimistic assessment of the military weakness of the Iraqi regime — its vulnerability to a “shock and awe” campaign — and the ease of reconstruction once it had been deposed were very much premised on its understanding of this seemingly familiar enemy.

But the “who” question has remained equally paramount as we have come to learn, painfully, more about the complexities of Iraqi and Islamic politics and power. Whatever the distinction once was between the problem of al-Qaida and Isalmic radicalism and the more traditional autocrats of Arabia, the distance clearly has narrowed. And, in this long war, it is the nature of the enemy that will determine the location and the nature of the fight, as indicated by this month’s features on bin Laden and the recently intercepted letter from his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Former CIA analyst Michael Sheuer has been studying bin Laden and al-Qaida for many years. His comparison of bin Laden to Stonewall Jackson might seem a bit farfetched, but the essential point — that Osama the legend is as important or more so than Osama the man — is well taken. Bin Laden has put an imprint on the politics of the Islamic world that will not be soon erased. What seems even more likely, as I suggest in my analysis of the Zawahiri-Zarqawi letter, is that the movement set in train by bin Laden may not be static; al-Qaida’s war aims may change, as its tactics are already. The ability of any leader — American or al-Qaida — to neatly control the conflict should be doubted at every turn. Even should the United States prove relatively successful in establishing internal stability and a more decent government in Iraq, the larger struggle for the future of the greater Middle East will continue.

Moreover, the dangers of the Middle East are not the only threats U.S. defense planners must account for. The question of China’s rise — which AFJ addressed in the November issue and to which we will return frequently — will not be answered for a long time to come. The People’s Republic is not now our enemy, but it is a potential enemy. And the only way to discourage, dissuade and deter China from becoming an outright enemy is to prepare ourselves for that possibility.

In a world of violent known enemies and of increasingly powerful potential enemies, it would be nice to have a few reliable friends. With allies as well as opponents, the “who” question is crucial.

We already know that our traditional alliance relationships, particularly with Europe, are changing. This is hardly a surprise, considering the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of free government across the continent. And from the standpoint of American strategy, the first order of European business should be to continue to encourage the deepening of the democratic process. If European powers, great or small, are ever to stand solidly with the United States again — particularly when the dangers of the Middle East and East Asia seem far removed — it will be when they see the cause of liberty as a justification for the use of force.

Indeed, if ever there were a case study in the strategic value of democracy — proof that our ideals can have real and positive consequences — it is in the emerging American strategic partnerships with Japan and India. AFJ will in the future look more closely at the nascent defense relationship between the United States and India, but this month’s cover story on Japan suggests how much the American commitment to democratic ideals matters. Without the justification of defending democracy, Japan would find it very, very difficult to assume a “normal” role in security affairs.

This is not to say, given its worries about China, that Japan does not feel its hard-core security interests — particularly its energy supplies — to be increasingly at risk. The sea lanes on which Japan depends for its oil and gas flow right across China’s front, and the growing power-projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army — marked by the surprise appearance of Chinese submarines in what Japanese regard as their home waters — have Tokyo’s close attention. Nor is it to suggest that the Japanese are immediately comfortable with the idea of greater military cooperation with U.S. forces.

But the lubricant that might make the gears of the U.S.-Japan alliance begin to mesh more closely in the future is, without doubt, the inherent legitimacy that defending democracy brings to the use of military power. Across the spectrum of Japanese leaders, both in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Koizumi and the opposition, democratic rhetoric is now de rigeur. It’s in marked contrast to the narrower and more naked nationalism that sprouted in Japan during the economic boom of the late 1980s. And in addition to legitimizing a military buildup, the devotion to shared democratic principles helps legitimize a closer alliance with the United States. This is the political and strategic framework that led to the recent deal — after many years of fruitless negotiations — to reposition U.S. forces in Okinawa and to allow a nuclear-powered U.S. carrier to replace the Kitty Hawk in its Japanese home port.

The Bush administration came to office in the belief that the post-Cold-War period was one of great geopolitical uncertainty, and that its program of defense transformation could proceed at leisure during several decades of “strategic pause.” And it sometimes seems as though much of the Defense Department still clings to that belief — it’s an open-ended question what the current Quadrennial Defense Review will produce. But slowly, surely, the abstract idea of “capabilities-based” planning is giving way to a more traditional and political judgment about enemies and allies. We’re now starting to think more clearly about the “who” question.