Today marks the fourth anniversary of the most important speech that George W. Bush ever gave about national defense. The irony is that he wasn’t even President when he gave it. It was a campaign speech delivered at The Citadel, a military academy in South Carolina, on September 23, 1999. The speech was designed to present Bush as a deep thinker about defense matters. It succeeded, anticipating every major strategic pronouncement he would make once he entered the White House.
Some people will never be able to grasp the possibility that George W. Bush might be a cogent thinker about national security. Like Ronald Reagan (and Teddy Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson), he’s too much of a populist — a “cowboy” — for intellectuals to take seriously. But the ideas he set forth at the Citadel four years ago look prescient today. Because he has stuck with them throughout his presidency, they amount to a Bush Doctrine — maybe the first such doctrine coherently advanced before a candidate entered the White House. (They certainly sound more serious today than Al Gore’s views, which at the time included placing global warming and AIDS in Africa atop the national-security agenda.)
Bush began his speech by describing how threats to the nation’s security had changed since the collapse of communism. He identified three areas of danger:
* Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological and nuclear) and their means of delivery.
* Antidemocratic regimes intent on acquiring such weapons, most notably Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
* Terrorists pursuing radical agendas, who were also trying to acquire the tools of mass murder.
Bush argued that the nation’s military was poorly postured for dealing with these emerging threats. Troops were underpaid and demoralized by a seemingly endless series of vaguely-defined missions. He promised to increase pay and pursue more focused missions. He also complained that the military was organized for “industrial age operations rather than information age battles.” Bush said he would give his defense secretary a mandate “to challenge the status quo and envision a new architecture of American defense.” The speech identified three key pillars of the new architecture:
* Active and passive defense of the homeland
* Preemption of emerging threats
* Military transformation leveraging new technology
Bush was quite explicit about the capabilities he thought the military needed to bolster, from intelligence gathering to special operations to unmanned vehicles to lighter armor. He also said he would encourage cultural reform within the military, so that change was more welcome. All of which he has done. Looking backward, it is clear that 9-11 wasn’t the inspiration for the Bush Administration’s new military posture or strategy — it merely provided the President with a popular mandate to pursue a path long since laid out.
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