Midweek Review
The First War of the New Century

war2.jpg (17542 bytes)By William M. Arkin
From the washingtonpost.com
I’m paid to know things, to make sense of an institution that at least until Sept. 11 was so far from the lives of most Americans that some translation and interpretation has become increasingly essential.

Knowing things means that I know people who suddenly go silent with a new-found intensity in real-world work. It is watching reservists with specific skills called to active duty. It is seeing certain parts of the military "spin up" into Cold War-like readiness. And it is participating in discussions amongst military professionals about what is happening and what it all means.

I’m concerned that while we’re saying this is a completely new type of war with an enemy that is in the shadows, we are falling back on old habits in preparing for that new war.

An Intelligence Test

Sometime over the next few days - there have been warnings from people inside the military and intelligence community — additional terrorist attacks are expected in the United States and abroad.

The warnings, and U.S. preparations to undertake combat, help explain the gravity with which the administration has been talking about secrecy and the protection of classified information. "My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence and what the intelligence says," President Bush said Thursday. "That’s for the protection of the American people." As we battle this enemy, the President continued, it is important that "we conduct ourselves that way."

Mr. President, we have to ask: Have the American people really been protected by this intelligence, that is, by the way the old system works? And, I might add: As we prepare to battle this enemy, do we have to conduct ourselves in same way we have always done?

It is not unreasonable to ask just what happened last Tuesday. I’ve racked my brain and come up with three possible explanations: The first is that we just had no warning whatsoever, that despite the intense focus on Osama Bin Laden, our intelligence agencies are not good enough to detect even such an enormously complicated plot.

Second is the possibility that the intelligence collectors had indicators that there was going to be an attack but did not analyze the information or did not distribute it to the right places so the lives of Americans could be protected.

And third is the uncomfortable possibility that terrorists and terrorist cells constitute such a complicated target, even in an increasingly transparent world, that we just do not have access to them or their shadows.

On Target?

As the U.S. military prepares for bombing and even more extensive operations on the ground, Americans need to know what each of these explanations suggest. It is not a pretty picture. Our magnificent military and our $30 billion annual intelligence establishment just may not be prepared to wage this war.

The number of military professionals who last week privately decried the decade of American military action undertaken from afar has impressed me. In the case of Sudan and Afghanistan after the 1998 Embassy bombings, and in the sustained trickle of strikes against Iraq, many think the nature of the actions themselves has engendered more contempt and anger than fear in the intended targets.

This is not just a Clinton administration phenomenon of casualty aversion and political hesitation. The entire Gulf War of the first Bush administration was fought with hair-splitting objectives (ejecting Iraq from Kuwait) that were then declared achieved. America went home, at least in spirit, even as we continued to wage war.

So the actions we do take now will have a profound influence on the long term and on the prospects of "ridding the world of evil," as President Bush calls it. He calls for a sustained and broad war against terror. I don’t particularly disagree, but rather than a pep rally declaration of certainty, and business as usual in keeping secret the details of our strategy, objectives, and tactics, I think we still need a searching and profound debate about what we are getting into, and what our prospects of success are.

Until then, when it is suggested that we surrender some of our fundamental rights, we should remind ourselves that the request comes from the very institutions that have proven incapable of fulfilling their basic function, the function of protecting their citizens.