Op Ed published in The Wall Street Journal
During its first year in office, the Bush administration seemed to be struggling to find a strategic concept that would distinguish its security posture from what had come before. Aside from its emphasis on missile defense, the President’s national-security team appeared to have embraced much of the conventional wisdom about security needs in the post-communist world. Even its measured response to the atrocities of September 11 wasn’t all that different from what a Gore administration might have done.
But now the real Bush Doctrine has begun to emerge, and it looks like the biggest shift in strategic thinking in two generations. The dominant military concept of the Cold War years — deterrence — is being demoted as the administration searches for more dependable ways of dealing with new dangers. And the durable doctrine of containment is being abandoned almost entirely, because it is ill-suited to a world of borderless economies and stateless aggressors.
It is no coincidence that these changes are getting their first public airing in the same week that the government disclosed its arrest of an Islamic extremist seeking to explode a radiological device in the U.S. The growing menace posed by such unconventional threats is the main force driving policymakers to downgrade the role of deterrence and containment in security plans.
As President Bush noted in his June 1 graduation address to West Point’s bicentennial class, “Deterrence — the promise of massive retaliation against nations — means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.” He warned that “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long,” and therefore concluded, “In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.”
The Bush Doctrine displaces the passive deterrent posture of Cold War years — a posture that made a virtue out of being defenseless against the greatest danger — with a more dynamic strategy depending heavily on preemption and active defense for its success. Deterrence remains a core feature of the new strategy, but the President and his key advisors believe the diverse menagerie of menaces the nation now faces includes some adversaries who cannot be deterred. The latter category of enemies will have to be killed or disarmed.
During the Cold War years, the U.S. only had one adversary that mattered: the Soviet Union. Although that adversary posed a range of dangers from nuclear aggression to subversion, it was at least plausible that the right combination of threats and inducements could shape the behavior of the small circle of leaders steering Soviet strategy. American policymakers may have overestimated the degree to which they understood Soviet motivations, but in the absence of effective defenses against nuclear attack, there was no clear alternative to deterrence.
Today, the threat is completely different. It consists partly of the residual category of dangers for which classical deterrence theory had few responses — actors who are too committed, or too accident prone, or too irrational, or simply too obscure to be effectively discouraged from violence. Some of these adversaries, such as al Qaeda, lack the fixed assets that a deterrent posture would seek to hold hostage as a guarantee of nonaggression. On the other hand, all of today’s enemies are much less powerful than the old Soviet Union, so there are fewer drawbacks to preemption.
It took some time for the Bush administration to identify the key elements of its preferred posture. Had it not been for the shock of September 11, the process might have taken much longer and been much more controversial. Since last fall, though, the many threads of Bush security policy have been woven together into a seamless posture that is likely to win broad bipartisan support. The Washington Post reported on Monday that the posture will be fully explained next autumn, when the administration releases its first National Security Strategy.
In addition to the existing military capabilities that the government possesses, the Bush Doctrine will demand new investment in three types of capability. All three fall under the general heading of “transformation” that defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, have been highlighting since they arrived at the Pentagon.
First, U.S. capacity to track and target elusive adversaries will have to be improved. It is harder to identify aggressors before they act rather than after, but that is what preemption demands. The administration has already stepped up such efforts. One reason demand for submarine time has increased by a third since September 11 is that more subs are needed to collect intelligence in the shallow waters of Southwest Asia, either through electronic monitoring or the insertion of human agents. Heavy investment in new airborne and orbital intelligence-gathering assets has begun, as have efforts to build intelligence networks in areas of interest.
Second, the administration needs to expand its capacity for stealthy and discriminate attacks against the full range of potential targets, including deeply buried bunkers. That requirement was reflected in the administration’s recently completed nuclear posture review, which linked a two-thirds reduction in nuclear weapons to investment in non-nuclear means of destroying the most hardened targets. Among the weapons likely to figure prominently in supporting this facet of the doctrine are cruise missiles launched from submarines, a bomber variant of the stealthy, supersonic F-22 fighter, and an oversized smart bomb to be carried on the B-2 bomber capable of penetrating 60 feet of very hardened material. Special forces will probably play a central role in supporting and executing preemptive strikes.
Third, and most fundamentally, the Bush Doctrine will require the will to act. That means more than investing in new war plans and command systems. It means investing time in explaining to the Congress and the public why first strikes will be required, so that when the time comes to act popular sentiment does not get in the way of military necessity. Although the President and his advisors are deeply committed to taking the initiative against emergent threats, they have not done enough to explain to the public what sacrifices national security may soon entail.
The Bush Doctrine is a necessary response to the new dangers that America faces. The one encouraging thing that can be said about those dangers is that they originate among men too stupid to understand the consequences of their actions. Every time al Qaeda attacks, it strengthens the public’s resolve to respond decisively. Thus, like the Soviets who created the need for a strategy of deterrence and containment, Islamic terrorists bear the seeds of their own destruction. The Bush Doctrine foretells the terms of their demise.
—Loren B. Thompson is Chief Operating Officer of the Lexington Institute and teaches in Georgetown University’s Strategic Studies Program.
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