Skip to comments.Phony War
Posted on 04/15/2002 7:52:27 AM PDT by browardchad
April 15, 2002, 8:30 a.m.
By Mark Helprin, from the April 22, 2002, issue of National Review
If bin Laden is alive, he may believe that, since September 11, the United States has become more vulnerable to terrorists, to rising states, and to new coalitions that see in America's careless delusions about its powers and prospects an irresistible opening for their own. And if he did believe such a thing, he would be right, though not for the first time, as you may recall.
It was he, after all, who watched for decades as this country was urged to strike at terrorists and the regimes that sustained them, and did not; as it was warned of Muslim religious fanatics piloting jets into its tallest buildings, and did nothing; as it suffered attacks upon its aviation, embassies, navy, and greatest city, and answered not by acts of war but in torrents of language, and gobbledygook at that.
But then in a month, and with fewer casualties than on a bad weekend in Houston, we subdued a country where the Soviets could make no headway in ten years, and quickly jumped to the conclusion that we now possess a revolutionary form of military power that we can direct wherever we please. We have been told, and we accept, that as we develop this wondrous power, spending as much for defense as the rest of the world combined, we should be content that our government is responding appropriately to the attacks of September 11 and making adequate preparation in regard to dangers to come. Would that this were so. It is not.
A ROUT IN AFGHANISTAN
Despite its brilliant execution, the campaign in Afghanistan was peripheral and on a minor scale. With the support or acquiescence of virtually every nation in the world, the United States went in on the side of one of two exhausted combatants locked in stalemate in open country devastated by years of war and starvation. The enemy fought without allies, supply, modern weapons, communications, intelligence, cover, or control of the air. With a few thousand soldiers on the ground and an unchallenged fleet offshore, the United States was following the pattern established by Britain during its domination of much of the Middle East in the 19th century. But whereas Britain did its enemies the honor of striking at their hearts, we have not. Borrowing from Churchill's assessment of Mussolini and Ciano, the organ grinders of terrorism are Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and bin Laden is merely the monkey.
Afghanistan is obviously of little importance in comparison with those states that have supported terrorists ab initio and that, variously, control great wealth, territory, resources, or mass (Iran's population is greater than that of Britain, France, Spain, or Italy); have influential allies and trading partners; possess biological, chemical, and/or nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them; and marshal large armies, sometimes with the most modern Western armament.
If a great power such as the United States suffers a savage and destructive attack against its chief city, its high officials, and its capital, what reason is there for it to prevaricate? Why depart from Napoleon's maxim Frappez la masse, et tout le reste vient par surcroît, or (freely translated) "Strike the center, and the rest will follow"? Inspecting bank accounts and sending a battalion to Zamboanga are not adequate while state support for terrorism as we have yet to see it in its full glory, when it turns to weapons of mass destruction, remains untouched. What then checks the United States from the proper aim of its supposedly overwhelming power?
THE MEASURE OF THEIR TILT
Without leave of Pakistan, a few Central Asian republics (thus, Russia), and to varying degrees Saudi Arabia and Iran, it would not have been possible to conduct the Afghan campaign without mobilization comparable to, if differently weighted than, that of the Gulf War. And to have done so after the severe degradation of the military during the Clinton years, the United States would have had to forgo its operational potential everywhere else in the world. Pakistan alone would have been difficult to overcome, as it is in essence a country built around an armed force. Because our power is not overwhelming and does not flow virtually without limit as once it did, we had to beg and flatter the very nations many of whose people cheered as the World Trade towers collapsed. The weak coalition thus assembled was born at the expense of throwing over the essential objective, while Afghanistan, always expendable, was happily tossed from the sled to divert, delay, distract, and pay us in the hope that we would shy from doing what really must be done.
Though Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are competitors or worse, they are now mutually protective not only of their existence but of the political independence of the Muslim world vis-à-vis the West, something in which terrorism inconveniently shelters, and that they will not sacrifice for the sake of eliminating terrorism, for which they have natural sympathy. Engaged of late in frenetic reconciliation, the Iraqis, Iranians, and Saudis have formed a kind of metaphysical triangle, toward the inherent strength of which have begun to lean each for their own reasons the Turks, Kurds, Russians, the Jordanians and most other Arab states, and even the Europeans, if their disapproval of American action against Iraq be taken for the measure of their tilt.
One might add to this list the Department of State. Almost certainly, the general in charge realizes that conditions in the Arab world are moving it toward what could become one of its rare unifications behind a charismatic figure who would lead it to defy external pressure. The potential for explosive counter-reaction has been building with every day that has passed since September 11 and with each day of the Palestinian uprising. Unlike the prelude to the Gulf War, no Arab state has attacked another, and the Arabs look upon September 11 at best with detachment. This is why the Saudis, quite apart from their core beliefs, are and have been so cold. They remember Saladin, the Mahdi, and Nasser, and are biding their time.
General Powell also must know that should the Islamic world unify against American intervention, the United States does not at present have the military power to do anything about it. What if Egypt were to bar the U.S. Navy from the canal, Turkey stop flights from Incirlik, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states expel U.S. forces before combining with Iran to close the Gulf to American operations against Iraq? The United States has twelve aircraft carriers, of which ten are usually operational. Given transit times, attrition, repair, and the need to cover other areas, the idea of surging six aircraft carriers to stations in the Arabian Sea is optimistic. Rather than chance short-range attacks by shore-based aircraft and missiles, and Iranian submarines that might escape our attack submarines and lie in wait in the difficult anti-submarine-warfare environment of the Gulf, the carriers would probably remain far from their objectives, something that, without tanker support from land bases, would greatly reduce aircraft loiter time. The six air wings aboard would consist of 300 strike aircraft, which is roughly the same number of first-line F-15s and Tornados the Saudis can put up, with proximity to base more than doubling Saudi effectiveness.
Though even this could be forced and endured, it would be closely run. With hostage crises in half a dozen Islamic countries, and the sudden restriction of Middle Eastern oil driving the Europeans to apoplexy, a new détente with the Muslim world might seem attractive to an American president even if he could with just a quiet whisper turn every Arab capital to molten glass especially if China or North Korea thought the moment opportune to address longstanding problems in the Pacific.
All of which is not to say that any such thing is likely to happen but that, given the correlation of forces, it could. This is what has allowed the Saudis to veto thus far a campaign in Iraq rather than simply acquiesce in view of our overwhelming fleet off its shores, our overwhelming reserves, and our overwhelming system of bases and support none of which exists. Nor is it likely that the lesser Gulf states would give the United States a platform for attack in defiance of the political drift of their neighbors. And although it is true that from American bases alone the United States has long been able to destroy almost any enemy (and certainly Iraq) in even non-nuclear variations of Randy Newman's "Let's drop the big one and see what happens," it rightly shies from obliterating nations and peoples. Finally, the Afghan paradigm, to be deus ex machina for extant ground forces, is not likely, even generously assuming no problem of access and an Iraqi military, like the Taliban, on the verge of collapse because there are no extant ground forces.
Such are the real dangers and constraints, but just as so many intellectuals were stopped short by the real powers of the Soviet bloc and dared not imagine how these could be contravened and overcome, so here it is not enough just to note the realities and stand down. The way around them is simple and traditional to possess the massive military power the United States can afford, and to use it either to achieve decisive victories or to force capitulation without a shot.
SIMPLY NOT ENOUGH
After the Gulf War, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, is it possible to conclude that American military power is anything but adequate? Unfortunately, yes. The Gulf War was begun as the Soviet empire dissolved and the Arabs rushed to cooperate. We did not have to fight our way ashore or protect forces in transit. We were at war with an isolated regime and an army that depended upon overextended lines of communication. The United States was primed for combat with another superpower and had yet to reduce its military capacity almost by half. But despite all this, a decade later Saddam Hussein still rules.
Deterred from close-quarter battle in Kosovo by a lesser air defense than what now protects Saudi Arabia, the United States flew 37,000 sorties over 78 days to destroy 13 tanks, which made up less than 2 percent of Serbia's inventory. To accomplish this, the Air Force endured what its chief of staff called a strain heavier than either that of the Gulf War or that of Vietnam. And for nearly four months during this period, and beyond, while naval engagements between the Koreas resulted in the sinking of a North Korean gunboat, the United States had not a single carrier in the entire Western Pacific.
After September 11, combat air patrols over just a few American cities requiring approximately 100 sorties per day from home bases, with neither aircraft nor bases under attack were said by American officials, as paraphrased by the Washington Post, to "stretch the limits of the Air Force" and "severely tax military resources." What of the 1,800 fighters and bombers the RAF had to face on a single day in August 1940? Why is it that the American armed forces, with 6,000 strike aircraft, are strained by 100 sorties per day, when on the 4th of June, 1967, Israel's 290-plane air force flew more than 1,000 sorties?
Over time and for no compelling reason, the United States has unilaterally forsworn, and is yet forswearing, one military capability after another. Whereas in Caligulizing defense the Clinton administration honored its absurd anti-military ideology, President Bush can claim no such rationale. Why, for example, does he plan to reduce the B-1 fleet by a third at the onset of what he calls the defining struggle of the 21st century, when the 31 planes that will be discarded are capable collectively of delivering to virtually any point in the world, at a single stroke, 4 million pounds of ordnance?
The administration has recklessly abandoned the longstanding two-major-theater-war construct. Inexplicably defining a major war as one in which a combatant occupies the enemy capital and changes the regime strike World War I the secretary of defense remains sanguine about facing two major outbreaks even if ready for only one. "Since neither aggressor would know which conflict would be selected for regime change, the deterrent is undiminished." That is, unless forces had already been moved, or one aggressor is willing to take a chance, or doesn't care, or ranks the two theaters according to U.S. strategic interests, or has a telltale intercept, etc. Will one enemy really refrain from making war against us because we are in combat with another? As Valley Girls say, "Hello?" Put charitably, to imagine that we will never be required to fight in multiple theaters is insane.
The secretary states most admirably that the administration's goal is not only to deter enemies from attacking with what they have but to "dissuade them from building dangerous new capabilities in the first place," by "demonstrating the futility of potential military competition." Precisely. And yet in the very same document he says that "we have not been able to fund shipbuilding at replacement rates in 2003 which means we remain on a downward course." And on the very same page, that the president has "concluded that stability and security in the new Century require . . . deep cuts in offensive nuclear forces." In light of the fact that China wants and is capable of achieving nuclear parity with the United States (see my "East Wind," in National Review, March 20, 2000), this is like the administration's decision before September 11 to seek "deep cuts in manpower." Not surprisingly, "In retrospect, we are finding that to fight the war . . . we have had to call up over 70,000 guard and reserves [by the middle of March, 80,000]. It is clear now . . . that it is not the time to cut manpower."
But it was clear then, just as it is clear now that it is not the time to cut nuclear weapons as China seeks parity, or long-range bombers at the onset of a war against terrorism, or to let the Navy dwindle in view of the need to project American power to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Taiwan Strait. Like Britain, the United States has always been adept at winning small wars, but China, North Korea, and Iran, for example, do not offer such an option. To influence, deter, dissuade, and, in the worst case, fight them, this country must field more than a gendarmerie. It seems, though, as if someone has decided that heavy wars, hard-fought wars, wars in which the outcome is unsure, have ceased to exist. That, of course, is the kind of decision that helps to bring such wars into the world.
WHAT THE NUMBERS TELL
Since September 11, however, things have changed, and surely every failing will be corrected, if not by new probity then at least by chance in the tidal wave of defense increases that of late has transformed liberals into the fiscal equivalent of someone who cannot cry out in a dream. But what are the facts? Although the president campaigned to restore the military, his first defense budget represented virtually no change; the second after September 11 a minuscule increase; and the third, though much trumpeted, a wholly insufficient one. The 2003 defense budget of $379 billion, less purely operational costs of the war, is 3.1 percent of the estimated U.S. GDP. To put this in perspective, average yearly military expenditure from 1940 to 2000 was 8.5 percent of GDP; in war and mobilization years, 13.3 percent; in non-war years, 5.7 percent; by Republican administrations, 7.3 percent; by Democratic, 9.4 percent; and by the Clinton administration, which did not speak to the military, 3.6 percent. The fact that GDP has expanded is unfortunately no comfort, in that the costs of maintaining a technologically advanced force have expanded even more; and of still less comfort is that the proposed increase, depending upon Daschle and events, may be nothing more than a bargaining position.
Can it be that, in a war year, the United States is devoting to defense only half the effort it has customarily expended in non-war years? Can it be that despite his promise to correct almost a decade of military neglect, despite the war against terrorism, the decision to deploy a missile defense, the need to dissuade China, and the imperative transformation of the military, President Bush proposes to spend less as a proportion of a slowly growing GNP than President Clinton spent with a rapidly expanding one? By the secretary of defense's own admission, "just to keep the Department going...on a straight-line with no improvements, simply covering the costs of inflation and realistic budgeting," requires $359.4 billion. "When one adds to that the $19.4 billion in this budget for the war on terrorism, the total comes to $378.8 billion out of a $379.3 billion budget." In knowing understatement, he goes on to say that this "does not correct a decade of under-funding." Indeed, it does not. By this reckoning, it provides for all tasks urgent, necessary, and pledged a 2003, non-inflation-adjusted, proposed increase of half a billion dollars.
Even including the proposed out-year budgets, with a compounded inflation assumption of 20 percent the 2003-07 increase over what was inherited is approximately 17 percent. Taking into account the war and increasingly costly advanced weapons, this, too, is just standing still. There are many ways in which the inadequacy of expenditure finds expression other than in the candid admissions of the principals. Research and development will grow in 2003 by 12 percent, which in light of inflation and the delayed replacements of the '90s is virtually nothing; special operations, a sine qua non of the defining struggle as it has been struggled to date, 19 percent; and procurement 10.6 percent. Even some Democrats, way out on the president's right flank, understand that this will not do. Washington Democrat Norm Dicks states, as if possessed by Scoop Jackson's ghost, "There's a $30 billion procurement gap. I don't see how we fill that with [this] budget." And Rep. Gene Taylor, Democrat of Mississippi, may have experienced a certain delight in pointing out that the administration's naval program fails even to equal, much less surpass, the construction rates of any of the Clinton years. Indeed, to fight terror, the president will in the next five years shrink his already shrunken navy of 300 ships down to 286, and provide for it fewer than half the aircraft required to sustain current force levels.
Opponents of non-three-card-monte defense increases may riposte that the measurements cited are taken relative to ourselves rather than to potential enemies, and are therefore immaterial because, inter alia, as they are fond of pointing out on countless hapless op-ed pages, the United States spends on defense as much as or more than the rest of the world combined. But it doesn't. In 2000, the last year for which all figures are readily available, the rest of the world spent almost twice as much. Allowing for other countries' conscription and that 60 percent of American defense costs are related to manpower, the rest of the world spends roughly 3.5 times what we do. Yet another disadvantageous multiple is purchasing-power parity, which means essentially that the local-currency equivalent of a U.S. dollar will buy in China, as elsewhere, far more than a dollar will buy in the U.S. The process of equalization continues across many spectra. For example, the United States fights logistics-based wars according to a forward strategy that requires gargantuan outlays of matériel and transport. And asymmetrical warfare dictates asymmetrical budgeting, because defeating guerrillas in most conditions requires an imbalance in numbers and equipment. Though North Vietnam's military expenditures were nominally less than a single percent of our own, they did give us quite a good run.
Just when America has awakened, what possible explanation is there for flat-lining defense? Is the policy in any way justifiable? Its authors believe that it is, because they think they have a magic bullet.
A PERSISTENT REALITY
They will say that war has changed, this war is different, and the revolution in military affairs makes weapons so many times more accurate that correspondingly fewer are needed. Thus, historical comparison is no longer valid, and advocacy of Cold War procurement patterns rather than "transformation" is like advocacy of the horse over the tank. Prolonging the old ways for which they are required, massive expenditures are actually harmful, and so on. Were these arguments as true as the aim of the weapons to which they refer, they would not be inconvenienced by persistent reality.
The new military technology is indeed many times more accurate and efficient than the old, but also many times more expensive. And even if precision guidance and a luminous picture of battle make, let us say, an F-16 ten times more capable than its earliest prototype, the numbers of F-16s cannot be reduced concomitantly, because one F-16 cannot be in ten places at once. Nor will it be mechanically ten times as reliable, and although it may be equivalent in some senses to ten aircraft, when it goes down nine aircraft do not remain. Most of the new systems, which contrary to much expert belief are not revolutionary but the logical and continuing development of the Cold War arsenal, depend upon vulnerable electronic links many of which are in orbit, adding to their cost the cost of dominating space. And it should be clear from many prosaic examples such as the strain upon the Air Force just to keep a few planes over New York and Washington that military transformation is hardly the panacea its partisans claim. Whatever its magic, it still must have customary, conventional, expensive support.
Though sharpened in the competition for scarce resources during the Clinton years, why has the destructive contest between "reformers" and "traditionalists" been allowed to continue in a time of war? If it was a strategy of divide and conquer, to keep the military in check, is that necessary for Mr. Clinton's Republican successor? If it is a result of the managerial ethos, in which the object is to accomplish a task with minimal investment, is it not a wholly gratuitous sin to stake the defense of a nation on a philosophy of business? Military transformation is essential, but no more so than military fundamentals. Especially in time of war, the president should be not the arbiter between them but the advocate of both. Clearly we should have had and could have had the mass, munitions stocks, strength in reserve, and fleet to have suppressed a Saudi veto and overwhelmed Iraq as we simultaneously campaigned in Afghanistan. Instead we are forced to play extenuating games with a rogue regime in possession of weapons of mass destruction. As for China when it rises, which may not be long from now, we can only run from a land war, and unless we double the size of the Navy, even those among us who are old may live to see our Asian allies fall under Chinese domination as the Stars and Stripes are thrown from the Western Pacific.
During the Second World War, the United States diverted more than a third and by some estimates half of its GNP to defense, despite the fact that real per capita GNP was much smaller than it is now, and thus the margin for such expenditure smaller as well. Even so, the country prospered. Wages increased in the war years by 50 percent as prices rose only by 20 percent, bringing increases in the standard of living across the board. Were the United States today to direct a similar proportion of its energies to defense, it could allot $4 trillion and still not sink beneath the waves. Were it to revert merely to the peacetime average of the last half-century, it could easily and painlessly sustain a defense budget not of $379 billion but of $655 billion, which is more or less what it should be. Have we become so dependent upon the entitlements we have manufactured in recent decades that we have lost the will to defend ourselves, and cannot spend in war what once was spent routinely in peace? Is our level of mobilization what it would be if New York and Washington were struck by nuclear weapons, and if not, why not, so as to forestall rather than simply to react?
The very words that President Bush spoke to Congress in its historic joint session of September 20, 2001, which have most often been cited and have actually been written on walls "We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail" are lifted without attribution from Churchill's great speech of February 1941, and as expressed are as inadequate and incomplete as a subject without a predicate. They ask the implicit question, "How?" but do not answer it, as Churchill did, when he said, "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job."
As if the war were unreal, the president asked America neither for sacrifice nor for the tools that, knowing that the war is real and may yet become more terrible, America would have granted him to any degree. Does he believe that the United States is capable of nothing more than running a gendarmerie and begging small dictatorships for aid? If it decides to do so, America is capable, as in recent memory, of moving across seas and sweeping its armies over continents. Have we not been sufficiently provoked? Is the necessity of dissuasion unclear? Is the right to action not apparent? Is the need for preparation not obvious? And in this above all the need for preparation why does the president's policy not comport with the valor and sacrifice of his troops, the political will of the people, and the inexhaustible strengths of this great nation?
Mr. Helprin, author of Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, served in the Israeli infantry and Air Force. He is a contributing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.
Hurts because he makes good points.
On a b.s. scale, bombing an aspirin factory and doing Monica cost less and killed fewer than Bush The Younger using ten billion to not find Osama.
Any President that makes Clinton's crap seem less crappy than we thought before really twists the knickers.
Like father like son?
Which would suggest that the next President would be a Democrat?
That about says it, doesn't it?
We are called a "super power," but our politicians are forever deathly afraid of offending this or that third world rag-tag bunch of losers, so every official speech and every official action is watered-down by political correctness, diversity training and coalitionizing.
It seems to me that real super powers don't define themselves by fear. And -- even if they did -- it wouldn't be the fear of offending some bunch of foreign losers...
Possibly. Bush increased funding to the Dept. of Education so that they can continue to contribute virtually nothing to a massively failing school system. Yet, if this analysis is correct, we are not funding our military to the degree needed to ensure our security.
The Arabs are stringing us along -- and we are falling for it.
Bush has utterly failed to protect our nation.
A little food for thought, eh?
Please God that Mr Bush will stay alert to the big picture and that he read to the second line of Mr Churchill's "blood and sweat and tears" speech.
To the part in which Mr Churchill said: [And I paraphrase from memory] "when this is over, it will not be enough to be able to say, 'we did our best.' We must be able to say that we did what was necessary to succeed!"
Please, Dear Lord?
Only read first half so far...
Very thought provoking!
Only read first three quarters so far...
I am surprised all of the die hard Bush fans
are not trying to spin this away!
I suppose ignoring it is just as effective. Truth hurts.
I admire GWB greatly. He has the potential to be a GREAT LEADER.
I know that he has vastly more detailed understanding of
the World stage, than I do... but common sense like
this article can not be ignored.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.