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September 15, 2006

National Strategies And Our Inability To Understand The War On Terror

The proliferation of national strategies, of which there are no fewer than 20 which deal with the problems of homeland security, homeland defense, and every conceivable issue in piecemeal fashion, have resulted in an approach to the War on Terror that thus far is fragmented in its organization and disjointed in its application. A reading of the various national strategies does not render a clear understanding of United States policy, objectives, or strategy overall. History in the form of the lessons of Vietnam dictates that failure of national strategy has the potential to lead to overall failure in the War on Terror. Strategic issues are illustrated in the two national strategies which come closest to forming a grand strategy and which form an umbrella for the other national strategies: the National Security Strategy of the United States of America and the National Strategy for Homeland Security.

The 2002 National Security Strategy Of The United States Of America pre-dates but broadly parallels the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission of what the United States should do – employ all the elements of national power; and how it should do it – transform the major institutions of American national security to meet the requirements of the post-9/11 era.(1) The 2006 version reinforces the original tenets from 2002 and lists examples of progress made in the past four years. It reserves to the United States the option of preemptive actions to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations of global reach. In this sense, it forms a loose overarching strategy to secure the United States against terrorist attack. It defines America’s enemy as terrorism and terrorist networks in general, but it makes the fundamental strategic error espoused by Tilford, in that it does not clearly identify the enemy, nor United States national objectives regarding that enemy.(2)

In its language the 2006 National Security Strategy Of The United States Of America may be contributing inadvertently to the motivations of al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, in the War on Terror. It clearly states that, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.”(3) In Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, Scheur argues that it is precisely American policies and actions of the past 30 years in Muslim nations, including pressure to conform to democratic principles, that have lead to the War on Terror. American policies and actions “provide Muslims with proof of what bin Laden describes as ‘an ocean of oppression, injustice, slaughter, and plunder carried out by you against our Islamic ummah. It is therefore commanded by our religion that we must fight back. We are defending ourselves against the United States. This is a ‘defensive jihad’ as we want to protect our land and people.’”(4) Scheur supports this argument with public opinion polls in the Muslim world, which indicate an overwhelming negative view of the United States.(5) Whether democracy is a clear and obtainable objective in the War on Terror is questionable. In Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World, Peters takes the position that “Democracy must be earned and learned. It cannot be decreed from without. In a grim paradox, our [United States] insistence on instant democracy in shattered states…is our greatest contribution to global instability.” (6) Efforts to push democracy on other sovereign nations may be perceived by those nations and their cultures as the ultimate example of American hubris. This may be a causal factor that leads members of other cultures to respond to calls of war against the United States.

The 2002 National Strategy for Homeland Securityalso predates The 9/11 Commission Report.(7) Its stated purpose, “to mobilize and organize the nation to secure the homeland from terrorist attacks,” seems to be a goal that would be more applicable to the National Security Strategy Of The United States Of America.(8) Its objectives – preventing terrorist attacks within the United States, reducing America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and response and recovery to terrorist attacks – are focused inward toward domestic preparations and constitute a primarily defensive and preventive strategy. It is an example of what Summers described as taking the strategic defensive, which led to United States defeat in Vietnam.(9) Much of what it prescribes for homeland security also conforms to Clausewitz’s definition of preparations for war instead of the conduct of war proper. It does not provide an objective or a strategy for offensive actions to counter terrorism, to preempt it away from United States borders, or for taking the strategic offensive in the War on Terror. In its current form it provides a good blueprint for the Department of Homeland Security but, despite having a segment devoted to American Federalism and Homeland Security, it does not provide any authority for directing how the various federal agencies are to work in synchronization with one another to prosecute the War on Terror. Ultimately, in its call for implementation of homeland security measures, costing hundreds of billions of dollars to implement, it may play to al Qaeda’s strategic objective of bleeding the United States economy to defeat American resolve.(10) Paradoxically, al Qaeda’s strategic objective is similar to that employed by the United States when it bled the former United Soviet Socialist Republic into bankruptcy in the Cold War arms race.

The nature of the War on Terror - against the unknown, the uncertain, and the unexpected, as Rumsfeld indicated - makes strategic thought difficult.(11) The proliferation of national strategies that partition the War on Terror into segments further complicates the effort. An example of how this occurs can be found in Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War, in which Beyerchen includes a discussion of the manner in which chance is associated with Clausewitz’s concept of the fog of uncertainty in war, which obscures or distorts most of the factors on which action is based.(12) According to Beyerchen, chance as a function of analytical blindness, as described by the late 19th century mathematician Henri Poincaré and displayed in Clausewitz’s work, results in an inability to see the universe as an interconnected whole. To paraphrase Beyerchen’s argument and apply it to the War on Terror: The inability to see the War on Terror in its entirety has resulted in multiple national strategies that break it down into segments that can be more effectively dealt with. Yet it happens that these segments react upon each other and the effects of this interaction then seem to be due to chance. The result is that the effort to comprehend the War on Terror through analysis, the effort to partition off pieces of it to make them individually amenable to strategic thought, opens the possibility of being blindsided by the partitioning process.

According to Beyerchen, Clausewitz had a profound sense of how the understanding of phenomena – in this case the War on Terror – is truncated by the bounds placed on it for analytical convenience. Clausewitz stressed the failure of theorists to obtain effective principles because they insist on isolating individual factors or aspects of the problems presented in war. Beyerchen quotes Clausewitz to illustrate his point,

Efforts were therefore made to equip the conduct of war with principles, rules, or even systems. This did present a positive goal, but people failed to take an adequate account of the endless complexities involved. As we have seen the conduct of war branches out in all directions and has no definite limits; while any system, any model, has the finite nature of a synthesis….[these attempts] aim at fixed values; but in war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities. They [theorists] direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical quantities, whereas all military action is entwined with psychological forces and effects. They [theorists] consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of continuous interaction of opposites.(13)

This is not to indicate that strategy in the War on Terror is without value. Just the opposite is true. While strategy as a plan, or product, is problematic as indicated in the discussion above, strategy as process brings great value. Strategy as process brings together often disparate elements to understand and confront a war that is in many ways at odds with historical reference. The issue for the United States is how it will transform its strategic processes to meet the requirements of the information age.

(1) National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.pdf (accessed 05/20/06).

(2) National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2006.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss/2006/nss2006.pdf (accessed 05/20/06).

Earl Tilford, “The War on Terror: World War IV,” A Reserve Officers Association National Security Report, Officer (October 2004), 38.

(3) National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2006, 6.

(4) Anonymous (Michael Scheur), Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Dulles, Virginia: Brassey’s, Inc., 2004), 129.

(5) Ibid, 177.

(6) Ralph Peters, Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World (Mechanisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 179-181.

(7) National Strategy for Homeland Security (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002).

(8) National Strategy for Homeland Security, 1.

(9) Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1984), Ch. 8.

(10) Anonymous (Michael Scheur), Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, 100-101.

(11) Donald Rumsfeld, remarks presented on “21st Century Transformation of the U.S. Armed Forces” at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C., January 31, 2002.
http://www.oft.osd.mil/library_files/speech_136_rumsfeld_speech_31_jan_2002.pdf (accessed 03/08/06)

(12) Alan D. Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security, 17:3 (Winter, 1992), 59-90.

(13) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 134-136.


September 9, 2006

The Fracturing Of The National Will

The lesson of Vietnam, a war of policy and limited political objectives, is that on the battlefield the United States military accomplished every tactical objective it set, but in the end North Vietnam, and not the United States, emerged strategically victorious. The success of the United States military in destroying the Viet Cong insurgency did not prevent North Vietnam from attaining its strategic objective of defeating American public support for the war and forcing the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam. In defeating American public support for the Vietnam War North Vietnam was able to fracture the national will of the United States.

Can the same thing happen in the War on Terror?

In labeling its post-9/11 efforts the “War” on Terror the United States invoked a war metaphor. In so doing it has tied its success or failure to the rules of war, including the national will, which consists of two elements: The political will of the government, and the public will as reflected in popular support. It is a principle of United States history that where there is no national will there can be no war. The same holds true in the War on Terror.

Is the national will fractured? To answer that question first requires a second question: Is the United States truly at war in the War on Terror? An examination of the branches of American government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial – reveals a lack of unity on the issue. In the opening words of the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, released by the White House, the executive branch states unambiguously that, “America is at war with a transnational terrorist movement fueled by a radical ideology of hatred, oppression, and murder.” (1) Although this would presume to resolve the issue the legislative and judicial branches of the government are not in accordance with the executive branch.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 Congress passed Public Laws 107-40 and 107-243. These laws give the President broad powers to prosecute the effort that has come to be known popularly as the War on Terror. Under the provisions of Public Law 107-40, the President is authorized to use force against those nations, organizations, or persons who planned and carried out the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and those that harbored them, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.(2) Public Law 107-243 authorizes the President to use the armed forces of the United States to defend the United States against the threat posed by Iraq, and to enforce United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.(3) However, from a legal perspective these laws are not a formal declaration of war by the legislative branch.

In 2004 the United States Supreme Court ruled that War on Terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay can take their cases that they are unlawfully imprisoned to the American court system.(4) The Court further reinforced its position in 2006 when it later ruled against Bush Administration efforts to conduct war crimes trials for some detainees at Guantanamo Bay.(5) The impact of the Court’s rulings are that they call into question whether the United States is legally at war in the War on Terror, or whether it is actually pursuing a law enforcement action. By offering protections of the United States legal system to the detainees, it appears that the judicial branch does not recognize the War on Terror as a war according to legal and historical definitions.

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, gives to Congress – the elected representatives of the American people – the power to declare war. A declaration of war – to establish the national will – therefore becomes a shared responsibility between the political will of the government and the popular will of its constituents. This is more than just a formality. Failure by Congress to declare war in Vietnam led to a failure to mobilize the second element of the national will, the popular will of the United States public, and ultimately contributed to the nation’s defeat. A declaration of war gives the President clear-cut military authority, as well as non-military options, including internment of armed combatants and seizure of foreign funds and assets. A formal declaration of war in the War on Terror may have precluded the Supreme Court’s decision to grant detainees at Guantanamo Bay access to the protections of the United States judicial system.

In the War on Terror, the United States is currently expending the bulk of its strategic military efforts against insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, which can be viewed as fronts in the larger War on Terror, and a global insurgency being waged by the al Qaeda terrorist network.(6) In a manner reminiscent of Vietnam, public opinion polls reflect that, while the American public continues to support the overall War on Terror, it has grown increasingly disenchanted with the War in Iraq.

American leaders would do well to heed the risk of pursuing a war metaphor in the War on Terror without achieving unity among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, and without maintaining public support. To fracture the national will – its political or its public elements – would invite strategic failure similar to that which occurred in Vietnam.


(1) National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, 2006. 1.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nsct/2006/nsct2006.pdf (accessed 09/07/06)

(2) Congressional Record 147 (2001), September 14. Public Law 107-40, 115 STAT. 224, Authorization For Use of Military Force.

(3) Congressional Record 148 (2002), October 10. Public Law 107-243, 116 STAT. 1498, Authorization For Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

(4) Rasul et al v. Bush, President of the United States, et al., 542 U.S. 03-334 and 03-343 (2004). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. As the Supreme Court pointed out, the Guantanamo Bay detainees: are not nationals of countries at war with the United States; deny they have engaged in or plotted acts of aggression against the United States; have never been afforded access to any tribunal and therefore have never been tried and convicted of wrongdoing; for more than two years have been imprisoned in territory over which the United States exercises exclusive jurisdiction and control.

(5) Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et al., 548 U.S. 05-184 (2006). The majority ruling of the Supreme Court was that it has jurisdiction to hear the case of an accused combatant before his military commission takes place; that the federal government did not have authority to set up these particular special military commissions; and that the special military commissions were illegal under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention of 1949.

(6) National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, 2005, 1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/iraq_national_strategy_20051130.pdf (accessed 02/09/06)