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Let Us Count the Ways By: Mark Helprin
The Claremont Institute | Friday, September 24, 2004


From the hijackings and massacres of the '60s and '70s through the close of the Cold War and the decade of locust years that followed, the United States did virtually nothing to fight terrorism. No match for the perils of a Soviet-American nuclear exchange or a conventional war in Europe, and hardly a distraction from either the proxy wars in the Third World with their casualties in the millions, or the years of the "Peace Dividend" with their enrichments by the trillion, terrorism was something that merely had to be managed. Though the acts of terror themselves were lurid and arresting, casualties were so few that when assessed from a position of safety and tranquility it seemed impossible that they could threaten the massive military and economic power of the Western nations that were anyway only peripherally involved. This was the cynical judgment of the elites and the unconscious judgment of the people of these nations, including our own.

As international terrorism steadily developed it did so carefully. Like a weak economy that initially refuses competition with stronger ones, it gave great and powerful states a wide berth. As long as the United States remained uninvolved, it was easy for us to make the case that we should not gratuitously become involved. If, as sometimes they were, Americans were caught in the crossfire, the calculus, perhaps momentarily more difficult, was the same, with few exceptions: to accept occasional casualties, rather than go neck deep with raids on training camps or punitive expeditions against state sponsors only to lose more Americans in the process and enter the kind of dirty war that no temperament, much less the American, was made to endure.

As it developed its ideologies; found refuge and finance; recruited adherents, sympathizers, and apologists; and perfected its operational art, Islamic terrorism began direct attacks upon Americans and American interests, but only so incrementally as not to elicit a decisive response. What had been collateral damage was now deliberative. Still, the numbers remained small and our calculation the same: the nation would not plunge into a hornet's nest for the sake of only a few, even were they its own. For the sake of U.S. ambassador Cleo A. Noel, Jr., and chargé d'affaires George C. Moore, murdered by Black September at Yasser Arafat's behest in 1973, the Nixon Administration would not take the nation to war. For the sake of Robbie Stetham, an American sailor murdered during the June 1985 hijacking in Beirut, or the 71 dead there in the 1983 and 1984 American embassy bombings, the Reagan Administration would not take the nation to war.

The terrorists crossed yet another line that was insufficiently provocative when they simultaneously targeted American interests and escalated their outrages. If we were not ready for all-out war, they were, attacking American embassies and a warship and venturing for the first time onto American soil for the 1993 assault upon the World Trade Center. The Clinton Administration simply did ignominiously what previous administrations had done before, as habitual attitudes continued in force though circumstances had changed radically, in that the fall of the Soviet Union eliminated the major check on retaliatory action. The terrorists, who, contrary to the common wisdom, always have an address, could strike, and strike, and strike again—our embassies, navy, and largest city—and not suffer a single punitive expedition, much less the full scale response to which they were deeply entitled.

Only when on September 11, 2001, they brought the war to the nation's capital, to its highest officials and symbols of government, and slaughtered almost 3,000 Americans in America itself did the calculus finally seem to break. Only with the brilliant campaign in Afghanistan and then the haplessly run war in Iraq has the reckoning finally seemed to have arrived. But has it really? Unfortunately, it has not. The calculus still holds. This country and its elites in particular have yet to shed the illusions that we need not work full out in our defense; that we need not, as in the past, display full commitment and devotion; that the stakes are low and the potential damage not intolerable.

The evidence of our continuing, major deficiencies has not been assimilated, and relative to what is required we have done virtually nothing to meet further challenges potentially far worse than that of September 11, and to prepare for the inevitable military rise of China. We have only partially exited the state of "managing" terrorism, even if now we know that terrorism cannot be managed.

This is a failure of probity and imagination comparable to the deepest sleep that England slept in the decade of the 1930s, when its blinkered governments measured the sufficiency of their military preparations not against the threat that was gathering but by what they thought the people wanted, and the people wanted only what they thought the government had wisely specified. We are now entrapped in the same dynamic. Neither the party in power nor the opposition has awakened to what must be done or what may happen if it is not. Neither party, nor the Left, nor the Right, nor the civilian defense establishment, nor the highest ranking military, nor the Congress, nor the people themselves, has been willing, in a war not of our own making, adequately to prepare for war, to declare war, rigorously to define the enemy, to decide upon disciplined and intelligent war aims, to subjugate the economy to the common defense, or even to endorse the most elemental responsibilities of government, such as controlling the borders of and entry to our sovereign territory.

As if all of this has been done, the Left is in high dudgeon, and for fear of higher dudgeon still, the Right dares not even propose it. The result is a paralysis that the terrorists probably did not hope for in their most optimistic projections, an arbitrary and gratuitous failure of will that carries within it nonetheless a great promise, which is that because it has no reasonable basis or compelling rationale, it may quickly be dispelled. And once it is, the weight of our experience, genius, and resources can be brought to bear.

The Spur of Honor

No matter how daunting the prospect of terrorism, the United States possesses the means with which to endure and defeat it, despite the difficulties of asymmetry and the hazards of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. All the steps I shall recommend ahead or that, by implication, flow from them are expensive. It is true that a substantial portion of the agony and uncertainty of the war to date has been attributable to the supposedly inescapable dearth of funds that has led to at times insufficient forces, ships, bombs, bullets, food, medical supplies, fuel, and even water. These deficiencies, however, are the drag only upon that which we have actually endeavored to do. Deficiencies of far greater mass and import have prevented even consideration of some things that need to be done but that we have not dared to do; they have failed to deter certain enemy actions; and have by their very existence suggested and stimulated them. For example, had the United States adopted Israeli levels of civilian airliner defense, September 11 would have been just another clear day on the East Coast—but this course supposedly was and supposedly still is too expensive. We do not and, according to some, cannot or should not control our borders, because it, too, is expensive. Humvees have gone without armor, baggage without inspection, epidemic diseases without immunizations, chemical agents without antidotes, radiation without detection, and so on and so forth across the spectrum of our vulnerabilities.

A simple analysis, however, shows that this is false economy. The United States produces approximately $11 trillion of goods and services annually, of which roughly $400 billion, or 3.6% of GDP, has been allocated to military spending including the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This 3.6% of GDP is far less than the 5.7% the U.S. devoted to defense spending in the peacetime years of the period 1940-2000, and barely more than just a quarter of the average of 13.3% of GDP devoted to defense in the wartime years.

In the Second World War, we spent as much as 38.5% of GNP (in 1945), and at the peak had twelve million soldiers under arms, almost 10% of the population. This is a far cry from the situation now. Were we to replicate the same levels of effort, we would be spending not $400 billion but $4.235 trillion. We would not have 2.7 million in uniform (including reserves), but 30 million. I am not advocating any such thing. As pressing as our needs may be, we are not engaged in war against a major power, and the intensity of engagement in World War II is far and above what is necessary. I point it out to show what we can do, and what actually we have done, if we concert our will, especially because during World War II it was much more difficult to apportion 29% of the nation's output to defense (the average for the period 1942-1946) than it would be now, because we have so much more wealth per capita than we did then, coming out of the Depression. To relinquish almost a full third of income is much harder for a nation with barely enough to get by than it is for one that lives in an age of material excess.

What is it worth to be properly prepared for a smallpox epidemic that might kill scores of millions of Americans, or perhaps 100 million? To prevent a nuclear detonation in Midtown Manhattan or on Michigan Avenue? To stop deliberate, coordinated massacres like those of September 11? And to preserve as a principle and in actuality both American security and independence? Merely as a matter of honor, with all calculation aside, it is worth any material expense to remove terrorist hands from the control of American destiny. We will soon have lost 1,000 soldiers in Iraq. I believe that most Americans would quite willingly adjust the way they live—to have less, to expect less—to save the life of even one. And I think that most Americans understand that America's governing elites, in guiding us, hoping to guide us, or pretending to guide us, have underestimated our potential for willing recourse to honor. What they do not understand—not because, as they think, they are too refined and intelligent, but because they are neither refined nor intelligent enough—is that to reject the spur of honor is ultimately to forfeit prosperity, liberty, dignity, and life itself.

Politicians of both parties badly judge the American character when, gazing at their own mirrors, they assume that we are a shallow people incapable of sacrifice and austerity. How would they know, never having had the courage even to ask? How can these same politicians have the temerity to expect and order so many military families to risk the ultimate sacrifice, and yet quake at the prospect of informing the rest of us that we may have to do with a little less? We can afford to pay many times over for anything this war requires. The money is there, and to direct it into well thought-out and effective measures for the common defense is an obvious responsibility of self-preservation.

War Aims

Perhaps nothing in war is at one and the same time so unexciting to the imagination and so absolutely essential as determining war aims. This may be not so much because it pales in comparison to the color of battle, but because it is primarily a task of limiting the imagination and confining opportunities within a frame of strict discipline.

The aims of this war have been remarkably incoherent and elastic, their character improvised, their direction changed instantly upon encountering an obstacle. Whatever it was in the beginning, the war has become a very grand enterprise, with very limited resources, to transform the entire Islamic World into a group of peaceful democratic states that, relieved of the stress of not being peaceful democratic states, will cease to breed terrorism. Not only is this based on a wrong assumption, impossible, and overreaching, it is backwards: although one may transform an enemy by defeating him, one does not, on the state level, defeat an enemy by transforming him.

Our aims should be less ambitious and more defensive. Were they disciplined to be so, they would also become more pertinent, justifiable, and attainable. We as a people surely should not wish to possess the Islamic states or convert them to our way of seeing things, politically or otherwise, but rather to insist absolutely that they refrain from attacking us. How then do we determine which states are involved, when they are masked by the structures and practices of terrorists who hide from the light? The Left facilitates their strategy when it holds that our tests of association in linking these states to terrorism are too fluid. To the contrary, they are hardly fluid enough, exempting, for example, Saudi Arabia. When the consequences are as grave as the potential for nuclear and biological warfare has made them, the slightest support, tolerance, or sympathy for terrorism directed at the United States should qualify the state manifesting them for open operations, its government for replacement, and its military as a target. To defeat Germany in the World Wars, we brought more suffering and destruction even to France, our ally, than in this war we have visited upon our enemies.

If we exempt from repercussion states that nurture terrorism they will nurture it all the more. And having adopted the model of conquest, occupation, and political conversion, we have exempted most supporters of terrorism, because neither we nor all the world have the power to conquer, occupy, and convert all the countries from which terrorism arises. If the overriding need is to protect the United States, its citizens, and its interests from military aggression in any form, the first aim in war should be to destroy as many terrorists as possible and to deny to those remaining refuge and sustenance so that as they are hunted either they will fall or they will of their own accord stand down. The world from which they spring is far too wide and alien for us to do even this according to the present design. We cannot reasonably hope to cover the entire Middle East if, a year and a half after conquering Iraq, we must make the trip from the fortified zone in Baghdad to the fortified airport in infrequent armored convoys. The only way to do it is to coerce existing regimes to accomplish it for us, which is possible by directly threatening their survival, something from which we have refrained by and large because of the paralyzing notion that once we destroy a regime we are bound to stay. We are not. We are bound only to defend the United States. We suffer the illusion that our withdrawal would bring anarchy, when, for example, we have not withdrawn from Iraq and it is the most anarchic of all the states in the region. Perhaps, had we left, it would have settled into a natural equilibrium, what engineers call the angle of repose, or perhaps it would not have. But if there is anarchy why must we attend to it if our attendance is ineffective?

The invocation of anarchy is anyway and in most cases a bluff. These regimes live to hold power, and one and all they have seized and maintained it by violence. They are quite capable of eliminating the terrorist infrastructures within their territories and will jump to do so rather than face their own destruction. And if they refuse to cooperate, or they go down trying, then the regime that replaces them can be offered the same choice.

To coerce and punish governments that support terrorism, until they eradicate it wherever they exercise authority. To open for operations any territory in which the terrorist enemy functions. To build and sustain the appropriate forces and then some as a margin of safety, so as to accomplish the foregoing and to deter the continuing development of terrorism. To mount on the same scale as the military effort, and with the same probity, the necessary civil defense. To reject the temptation to configure the defensive capabilities of the United States solely to the War on Terrorism, as this will simultaneously stimulate China's military development and insure that we are unprepared for it. These should be our aims in this war.

They are neither modest, nor without risk, nor certain to succeed—by their very nature they cannot be. But they are a model of discipline and restraint when compared to the infinitely open-ended notion of changing the nature of the Middle East, changing the nature of the Arabs, changing the nature of Islam, and changing the nature of man. No army can do that. No army ever could.

Control the Center

Although so far on (and so deep in) that this may no longer be possible even as an alternative to failure, the 140,000 American troops struggling to pacify Iraq would be a much more effective instrument were they remounted, re-formed, and re-instilled with the mission for which they were forged into an army—to win battles against other armies. Working from the existing network of developed bases in northern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, reinforced until doubled in number, safe from demoralizing attrition, able to exercise and train, supported fully by air and sea power, they would be equidistant from Damascus, Riyadh, and Baghdad, each of which they could reach en masse and despite opposition in two or three days to bring down any regime that did not suppress the terrorism in its purview. These capitals are the center of gravity of the Middle East and, perforce, of the terrorist enterprise. To control the center without continuous occupation of populated areas would confer immense direct, strategical, and psychological advantage, and would as well provide a secure base for dealing with enemy migration to outlying areas, an established pattern that will recur.

Once the center was secured, activities dispersed to the periphery would be isolated and vulnerable. Regimes that refused cooperation could then become the focus for careful consideration one by one. Take for example Iran, a peripheral state that is nonetheless the most powerful and belligerent sponsor of terrorism remaining in the Middle East and indeed in the world. This is a country of 73 million, with a formidable military and difficult mountainous terrain. It is not, absent the kind of mass and power the United States and NATO needlessly relinquished at the Cold War's end, a country to invade, even in the "in-and-out" style advocated herein. And yet it has acquired and is acquiring intermediate-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, it is a habitual and recidivist supporter of terrorism, and its legislature frequently opens with chants of "Death to America."

We treat this obvious threat as if it were insurmountable, because due to our insufficient preparation, current deployments, and strategical blindness, at the moment, it is. The administration has no policy other than a few impotent statements about elections, and a spurned offer to inject Elizabeth Dole into the region as a bearer of earthquake aid. A Kerry Administration, over-brimming with understanding of the world's disdain for the United States, and having rejected the legitimacy of pre-emption, would be patient until detonation. The girlie-men of Congress hope to complete a resolution calling for U.N. sanctions, while the non-metrosexual bloc hopes to introduce a resolution for regime change. Ever meek, the Europeans tried bribery and persuasion and were rebuffed like idiots. And the Council on Foreign Relations recommends "direct dialogue" and the broadening of cultural and economic relations—i.e., ping-pong and pistachios. Meanwhile, Iran shelters al-Qaeda, acquires missiles, and races toward nuclear armament.

But were the open and bleeding flank in Iraq closed, the center safely held, and the American military properly supplied, rebuilt, and rejuvenated, the sure way to strip Iran of its nuclear potential would be clear: issuance of an ultimatum stating that we will not allow a terrorist state, the legislature of which chants like a robot for our demise, to possess nuclear weapons; clearing the Gulf of Iranian naval and coastal defense forces; cutting corridors across Iran free of effective anti-aircraft capability; surging carriers to the Gulf and expeditionary air forces to Saudi Arabia; readying long-range heavy bombers in this country and Guam; setting up an unparalleled search and rescue capability. If then our conditions were unmet, we could destroy every nuclear, ballistic-missile, military research, and military technical facility in Iran, with the promise that were the prohibited activities to resume and/or relocate we would destroy completely the economic infrastructure of the country, something we could do in a matter of days and refresh indefinitely, with nary a boot on the ground. That is the large-scale option, necessary only if for some reason the destruction of Iran's nuclear facilities could not, as is likely, be accomplished by stealth bombers and cruise missiles. The almost complete paralysis of its economy, should it be called for, could be achieved with the same instruments plus naval gunfire and blockade.

Like the strategy of using ground forces as an equivalent "fleet-in-being" coiled and ready to strike from within the heart of the center of gravity of the Middle East, this strategy for air and naval power would have a high probability of achieving its aims via coercion rather than actual combat, and, were going to war necessary, it would require neither the careless dissolution of (relatively) small forces among large populations, as in Iraq, nor their exposure to insurgency, nor their endless deployment in hostile areas. The paradigm would shift from conquer, occupy, fail, and withdraw—to strike, return, and re-energize, one of the many advantages of which would be that the U.S. military would remain intact and capable of dispatching to areas now dangerously neglected, such as East Asia.

But as salubrious as such a strategy may be, it is not magical. At times, occupation of key points would be necessary. And no matter what the efficiency of the paradigm, it does not obviate the need for a military buildup. The managerial ethos, rife now in the Pentagon and poison for the conduct of war, is to do the job with just enough of what is required. But war always requires redundancy, reserves, and as large a surplus capacity as can be maintained. That is because, unlike manufacturing shampoo or television sets, there are far many more variables, fewer rules, hostile intent, and consequences mortal to individuals and nations. The armed forces of the United States must be configured not only with a comfortable surplus for fighting the war on terror, but with an eye to the rise of China—so that, in both cases, rather than our vulnerabilities stimulating the initiatives of enemy or rival, our vigor and capacity will deter and discourage them. To do otherwise, as we are doing in fighting on the cheap, neglecting the rise of China altogether, and hoping for the best, is to risk the national security.

The Means to Prevail

Civil defense as we practice it now may best be understood in its similarity to military "transformation" or the "revolution in military affairs," which is not a revolution at all but a clearly traceable evolution that, nonetheless, has (predictably) accelerated at such a torrid pace that to some it looks like a revolution. Think of it in this way: if during World War I the entente had had a bee capable of injecting a fatal poison in the jugular of ten enemy soldiers, of arriving so fast that it could hardly be seen, and of organizing its movements collectively with such precision that no one would be stung twice, the armies of Britain, France, Italy, the Balkan states, Russia, and the U.S., with all their artillery, machine guns, trench works, and gas, might have been replaced by a dozen beehives, and the war won in a few days with not a daisy cut from its stem. That, by illustrative analogy, is the soul of transformation.

The problem is that no matter how capable the bees, they will encourage adaptations in those who are stung, and some things they cannot do anyway. The American military's transformation is necessary, though not necessarily sufficient, for prevailing in battle against other armies (mass and traditional maneuver are still required, as are heavy weapons and staple logistics), but transformation has little effect on counter-insurgency, as illustrated so painfully in Iraq. Nonetheless, it is the fashion of the moment and the instrument for all purposes.

Though it is far easier to attack the few thousand enemy targets that threaten us than it is to defend the scores of millions of targets they may strike, the asymmetrical and covert nature of the war demands that we must defend them. Because such a defense is so very costly, we have turned to the transformation model to mount it. Just as the Clinton Administration, to avoid higher military spending, emphasized transformation and its aura of magic, and just as the Bush Administration has done so partly for the same reason, we see our civil defense not as a difficult, tedious, and expensive job of widespread and meticulous protection, but as a challenge for the exercise of pinpoint intelligence.

Rather than comprehensive inspection and screening of passengers and cargo, we turn instead to complicated exercises with computers. Rather than controlling the borders, we seek to determine the few malefactors. Thus the stress on intelligence and neglect of virtually all else. But, as military transformation is necessary and yet clearly not sufficient for victory in war, intelligence is absolutely necessary and most certainly not sufficient for civil defense. And because the screen, by policy and delusion, is deliberately partial, and often so much so as to be nonexistent, and because that which may pass through it is of almost unimaginable destructive potential, we cannot safely continue to rely on selectivity alone.

To the contrary, the borders must be controlled absolutely, as is the right of every sovereign nation. It is hardly impossible and would demand no more than adding to the Border Patrol a paramilitary force of roughly 30,000, equipped with vehicles, helicopters, unmanned aerial drones, fences, and sensors. Crowded and slow entry points should be expanded to provide quick and thorough inspection by traditional methods and inspection to the limits of technological advance where traditional methods are impossible, as in searching the interstices of vehicles, or packed cargo containers, for nuclear or chemical warfare material. The sea frontiers can be secured if we undertake to supplement the Coast Guard with a few dozen high endurance cutters, 100 coastal patrol vessels, 50 long-range reconnaissance aircraft, 100 helicopters, and the appropriate additional personnel; and if the navy, by expansion of its anti-submarine assets, fixed and afloat, guarantees against submarine infiltration.

Aliens with even the slightest record of support for terrorism should be summarily deported—no alien has or has ever had the absolute right to be in the United States—and American citizens with suspected terrorist connections should be subjected to at least the same level of surveillance and investigation as figures in organized crime, with the same constitutional protections unless waived by an emergency court that, in turn, is supervised by a court higher still, the task of which is to prevent abuse of even carefully created emergency powers.

The United States must have, once again, an air defense, with new provisions for aerial threats arising from within its borders. This would require only a few hundred new fighters, a small part of those necessary for the future power projection needs of the air force and navy, and assimilable in them as a stage of rotation and training.

Although the best way to prevent a nuclear detonation in an American city is to stop it as early as possible in the planning stages, the fact that many portable Soviet tactical nuclear charges are unaccounted for justifies not only the above-mentioned border detection measures but bringing to full maturity the spotty intra-city nuclear detection effort in, for example, Washington, D.C., and its extension to every major concentration of population in the country. Training in decontamination, and the stockpiling of radiation countermeasures are necessary elements, as are evacuation planning and infrastructure continuation. Although for some the existence of "low-intensity" warfare in the form of terrorism means—because of magic that I myself cannot fathom—that there is no danger of a nuclear weapon delivered to a target in the United States by missilery, the existence of missile and nuclear weapons programs in what Madeleine Albright called "states of concern" suggests that ballistic-missile defense is yet an urgent priority, especially given that both intermediate-range and short-range ballistic missiles can be launched at sea with relative ease, after being dropped into the water from a freighter.

An effort on a scale several times greater than that of the Manhattan Project, and with similar or greater urgency, should be made to find antidotes, immunizations, and effective treatment for the full range of chemical and biological warfare agents. Once these are brought into being, they should be channeled into an immense nationwide distribution and application system, so that every attack can be quickly and thoroughly isolated, suppressed, and ameliorated. Each American should have access to the full range of immunizations available. (This is not the case at present. For example, though most of the public has at one time been vaccinated against smallpox, often on multiple occasions, it cannot now be revaccinated, because for some this procedure is a frightful prospect due to their view of the risks.) And stockpiles should be waiting for latecomers and the fainthearted.

Although these steps do not cover the full range of vulnerabilities (some of which it would be unwise to discuss publicly), and neither they nor anything else can provide absolute assurance, in their deterrent effect and their actual functioning they would drastically reduce the major dangers, and many of them would provide ancillary benefits as well. The establishment of huge medical research centers, with every incentive and asset for successful breakthroughs, would undoubtedly bring associated benefits in medicine. If the laws of supply and demand remain unrepealed, significantly increasing the number of hospitals and their staffs to deal with worst case scenarios could not have anything but a positive impact on the economics and availability of health care. Actual control of the borders would shut down the world's largest market for the transnational trade in illegal drugs. The necessary and balanced growth of the military would give pause to any nation, rogue or otherwise, with plans or dreams of challenging the United States by force of arms, thus obviating by deterrence future conflicts that we cannot foresee, and saving the lives of many who are not yet born.

Are We at War?

To the complaint that all I have recommended would be impossibly expensive, I say look to history, look to current accounts, look to the vast size of the economy, more than $11 trillion, of which I propose to release not even one dollar in ten, and keep in mind the kind of weaponry available to the enemy, his motivation, his declarations, and his intent.

When combined with the intelligent direction of policy and appropriate strategical reformations and adjustments in war aims, the measures outlined above—a proportionally small effort in light of the cost of previous wars—would offer the best chance for escaping the incalculable expense of lives lost, cities destroyed, and unnecessary wars of the future provoked by the vacuum of unpreparedness, lack of resolution, and ineptitude in execution that we have begun to show the world. In terms of what we must seek to avoid, these expenditures are the greatest economy imaginable.

The United States must make up its collective mind and answer the simple question, are we at war, or are we not? If the answer is no, we need not worry, nor take nor modify action in regard to terrorism. If the answer is yes, then major revisions and initiatives are needed, soon. If they are not reasonably forthcoming, the nation may pay a price such as it has never paid before.

It is all, finally, a matter of the possession or the failure of will. For if the whole power of the United States is adroitly focused upon this war, it is solely ours to win. We have the means to prevail. We need only count the ways.




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