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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.


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