Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Grand Strategy in the Second Term

I have long been a reader and admirer of John Lewis Gaddis. As an aspiring academic, I have admired his command of history and language, clear thinking, and ability to make reading in academics interesting and enjoyable. In this month's Foreign Affairs (see link above), Gaddis authors a piece entitled "Grand Strategy in the Second Term." As usual, he nails it.

George W. Bush has much to evaluate: he has presided over the most sweeping redesign of U.S. grand strategy since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The basis for Bush's grand strategy, like Roosevelt's, comes from the shock of surprise attack and will not change. None of F.D.R.'s successors, Democrat or Republican, could escape the lesson he drew from the events of December 7, 1941: that distance alone no longer protected Americans from assaults at the hands of hostile states. Neither Bush nor his successors, whatever their party, can ignore what the events of September 11, 2001, made clear: that deterrence against states affords insufficient protection from attacks by gangs, which can now inflict the kind of damage only states fighting wars used to be able to achieve. In that sense, the course for Bush's second term remains that of his first one: the restoration of security in a suddenly more dangerous world.
It has long puzzled me as to why there has been less of a consensus to emerge regarding grand strategy post 9/11. I realize that there is a lot of personal and partisan baggage that has infused this debate within the US. I also realize that the Bush administration has been somewhat tone deaf, slow to reach out, and obsessed with secrecy in terms of policy formulation and implementation. There is enough blame to go around ten times over for all parties concerned. Regardless, given the nature and scope of the threat, it seems we have failed to have a reasoned and rational debate that is truly in the best interest of the country as a whole.
THE NARROWEST GAP between Bush's intentions and his accomplishments has to do with preventing another major attack on the United States. Of course, one could occur at any moment, even between the completion of this article and its publication. But the fact that more than three years have passed without such an attack is significant. Few Americans would have thought it likely in the immediate aftermath of September 11. The prevailing view then was that a terrorist offensive was underway, and that the nation would be fortunate to get through the next three months without a similar or more serious blow being struck.

Connecting causes with consequences is always difficult--all the more so when we know so little of Osama bin Laden's intentions or those of his followers. Perhaps al Qaeda planned no further attacks. Perhaps it anticipated that the United States would retaliate by invading Afghanistan and deposing the Taliban. Perhaps it foresaw U.S. military redeployments from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Iraq. Perhaps it expected a worldwide counterterrorist campaign to roll up substantial portions of its network. Perhaps it predicted that the Bush administration would abandon its aversion to nation building and set out to democratize the Middle East. Perhaps bin Laden's strategy allowed for all of this, but that seems unlikely. If it did not, then the first and most fundamental feature of the Bush strategy--taking the offensive against the terrorists and thereby surprising them--has so far accomplished its purposes.

A less obvious point follows concerning pre-emption and prevention, a distinction that arose from hypothetical hot-war planning during the Cold War. "Pre-emption" meant taking military action against a state that was about to launch an attack; international law and practice had long allowed such actions to forestall clear and immediately present dangers. "Prevention" meant starting a war against a state that might, at some future point, pose such risks. In mounting its post-September 11 offensive, the Bush administration conflated these terms, using the word "pre-emption" to justify what turned out to be a preventive” war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

It did so on the grounds that, in a post-September 11 world, both terrorists and tyrants threatened the security of the United States. Al Qaeda could not have acted without the support and sanctuary the Taliban provided. But the traditional warnings governments had used to justify pre-emption--the massing of armed forces in such a way as to confirm aggressive intent--would not have detected the September 11 attacks before they took place. Decisions made, or at least circumstances tolerated, by a shadowy regime in a remote country halfway around the world produced an act of war that killed more Americans than the one committed six decades earlier by Japan, a state known at the time to pose the clearest and most present of dangers.

Pre-emption in its older and narrower sense might have worked against the Japanese fleet as it approached Pearl Harbor--had it been detected in time. Pre-emptive arrests would have stopped Mohammed Atta and his 18 co-conspirators as they approached their respective airports if it had been possible to read their minds. No nation's safety, however, can depend on such improbable intelligence breakthroughs: as the Pearl Harbor historian Roberta Wohlstetter pointed out years ago and as the 9/11 Commission Report has now confirmed, detecting telltale signals in a world full of noise requires not just skill, but also extraordinary luck.

That is why the Bush administration's strategists broadened "preemption" to include the Cold War meaning of "prevention." To wait for terrorist threats to become clear and present was to leave the nation vulnerable to surprise attacks. Instead, the United States would go after states that had harbored, or that might be harboring, terrorist gangs. It would at first seek to contain or deter such regimes the familiar means by which the Cold War had been fought--but if those methods failed, it reserved the right to pre-empt perceived dangers by starting a preventive war.

The old distinction between pre-emption and prevention, therefore, was one of the many casualties of September 11. That event revealed a category of threats so difficult to detect and yet so devastating if carried out that the United States had little choice but to use preemptive means to prevent their emergence. John Kerry made it clear during the 2004 campaign that he would not have relinquished that option had he won the presidency. His successful opponent certainly will not do so, nor are his successors likely to. This feature of the Bush grand strategy is here to stay.

He is absolutely correct in discussing the (relative) demise of deterrence, the conflation of preemptive and preventive war, and that such a conflation is necessary in today's increasing globalized world.

The entire article is definitely worth a read. Regardless of where you fall on GW, the war in Iraq, the left-right spectrum, Gaddis gives a fair and honest opinion as to where we stand and where we need to go in the coming years.