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Issues Of Strategy In The War On Terror

Issues of strategy can be found in the proliferation of national strategies, of which there are no fewer than twenty addressing various aspects of the War on Terror. These strategies deal with the problems of homeland security, homeland defense, and the War on Terror in piecemeal fashion, resulting in an approach 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 overall United States policy, objectives, or strategy. History, in the form of the lessons learned in Vietnam, dictates that a failure of national strategy has the potential to lead to an overall failure in the War on Terror. Strategic issues are illustrated in the two national strategies that come closest to offering a grand strategy that creates an overarching 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 pre-dated, but broadly paralleled, the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report regarding 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 of the National Security Strategy reinforces the original tenets from 2002 and lists examples of progress made in the intervening four years. (2) It also reserves the option of preemptive actions to disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations with 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 national objectives regarding that enemy. (3)

In its language, the 2006 National Security Strategy may contribute inadvertently to the motivations of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. 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.”(4) In Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, Michael Scheur argues that it is precisely American policies and actions of the past thirty 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.’”(5) Scheur supports this argument with public opinion polls in the Muslim world, which indicate an overwhelmingly negative view of the United States. (6)

Whether democracy is a clear and obtainable objective in the war on terror is questionable. In Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World, Ralph 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.”(7) Efforts to impose 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 in members of other cultures responding to calls for war against the United States.

The 2002 National Strategy for Homeland Security also predated the 9/11 Commission Report. (8) Its stated purpose, “to mobilize and organize the nation to secure the homeland from terrorist attacks,” seemed to be a goal that would be more applicable to the National Security Strategy. (9) Its objectives – preventing terrorist attacks within the United States, reducing America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and response and recovery to terrorist attacks – were focused inward on domestic preparations and constituted a primarily defensive and preventive strategy. It was an example of what Summers describes as taking the strategic defensive, which led to United States defeat in Vietnam. (10) Much of what it prescribed for homeland security also conformed to Clausewitz’s definition of preparations for war instead of the conduct of war proper. It did not provide an objective or a strategy for offensive actions to counter terrorism, to preempt it at United States borders, or for taking the strategic offensive in the War on Terror. It provided a blueprint for the Department of Homeland Security but, despite having a segment devoted to American federalism and homeland security, it did not provide any authority for directing how the various federal agencies should work in synchronization to prosecute the War on Terror. Ultimately, in its call for the implementation of homeland security measures costing hundreds of billions of dollars, it may have served al Qaeda’s strategic objective of bleeding the United States economy as a means of defeating American resolve. (11) Ironically, al Qaeda’s strategic objective is similar to that employed by the United States when it bled the economy of the former Soviet Union into bankruptcy in the Cold War arms race.

The 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security describes its purpose as “to guide, organize, and unify our Nation’s homeland security efforts.” (12) It acknowledges the need to take measures that enhance the resilience of the national economy and critical infrastructure, and it takes into account the necessity to prepare for catastrophic natural disasters (such as Hurricane Katrina) as well as terrorist attacks. It does prescribe some measures that can be categorized as taking the strategic offensive. However, its approach reinforces an industrial age paradigm by focusing on the land, maritime, air, space, and cyber domains, rather than an information age paradigm focused on the physical (including land, maritime, air, space, and cyber), information, cognitive, and social domains. It does not set objectives for winning the War on Terror.

The nature of the War on Terror – against the unknown, the uncertain, and the unexpected, as Rumsfeld indicated – makes strategic thinking difficult. 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 way 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. (13) 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 more easily dealt with. Yet it happens that these segments interact and the effects of this interaction 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, creates 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 develop 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
. (14)

This is not to indicate that strategy in the War on Terror is without value; quite the opposite. While strategy as a plan, or product, is problematic (as indicated in the preceding discussion), strategy as process brings great value. Strategy as process brings together often disparate elements to understand and prosecute a war that is in many ways at odds with historical record. The issue for the United States is how it will transform its strategic processes to meet the requirements of warfare in the Information Age.

(1) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002.

(2) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2006.

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

(4) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2006, 1.

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

(6) Ibid, 177.

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

(8) National Strategy for Homeland Security, 2002.

(9) Ibid, 1.

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

(11) Anonymous (Michael Scheur), Imperial Hubris, 100-101.

(12) National Strategy for Homeland Security, 2002, 1.

(13) Alan D. Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security 17, no.3 (winter 1992): 59-90.

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


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