December 10, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

America Didn’t Plan for this Kind of War

The 21st century wasn't supposed to be like this. We Americans were meant to be spending our “peace dividends,” while the high-tech stocks in our 401Ks grew like Jack's beanstalk. Precision weaponry would deter anyone from even thinking about harming us. Besides, with the Berlin Wall reduced to paper weights, nations around the world would conclude that liberal democracy was the only way to arrange their politics, and democratic capitalism the only way to organize their economies.

Instead, of course, we find ourselves facing a uniquely daunting period in our history. In essence, there are two formidable challenges that Americans must meet in this new century: (1) We must learn how to fight a low-intensity but long-term war against ruthless Islamist terrorists intent on committing mass murder on an unprecedented scale; and (2) we must learn how to facilitate the building of free and democratic states abroad because the alternative is that more states fail, becoming corpses on which the terrorists feed.

In the euphoria of the post-Cold War, no one appears to have worked out these tasks comprehensively or creatively. The fact is we don't really know how to do either. The fact is we'd better learn.

Thomas Donnelly, an insightful military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, observes that “counterinsurgency has proven to be a perennial blind spot for the American military.” At the Pentagon, he adds, an “institutional unwillingness to confront the problem of low-level combat persists to this day.”

The focus instead has been on “big wars” in which “overwhelming force” can be applied to win “decisive battles” that achieve clearly definable objectives. After that, come “exit strategies.”

Among the key differences between a big war and the kind of war America now finds itself fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and several dozen other countries where terrorists are plotting against us is this: In a big war, the generals have a pretty good sense of where the enemy is – he's part of unit, he wears a uniform, he carries a weapon openly. In a war against terrorists – whether those terrorists are in Baghdad, Berlin or Buffalo — the enemy is a phantom who strikes with sudden lethality and then disappears.

To win such a war requires doctrines, training and equipment different from those utilized in a big war. In particular, human intelligence on the ground becomes paramount because it is almost exclusively through such intelligence that the phantoms can be located and destroyed before they attack.

Despite that, over the last quarter century, America's human intelligence-gathering capability has been severely diminished by politicians who didn't recognize the continuing – indeed growing — need for this unpleasant line of work. They forgot George Washington's admonition: “The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further argued.”

In addition, too many policy makers have been slow to recognize the difference between Jihadi terrorists and terrorists of past generations who fought for more limited causes. L. Paul Bremer, now the top US official in Iraq, is a long-time student of terrorism who did recognize this difference. Almost a year ago he wrote: “The old style killers used terrorism as a tactic to draw attention to their political grievances or demands. They calibrated their attacks to kill enough people to attract the press without killing so many as to repel the public.

“In contrast, the New Terrorists are motivated to destroy the West.  In their warped interpretation of Islam, it is the duty of every Muslim to convert or kill all non-Muslims, if necessary by the tens of thousands or millions. They openly state that they will not rest until all the world is united under an Islamic caliph (as indeed much of the world was for centuries until 250 years ago).”

As for what we call “nation-building,” there has never been much support for that sort of effort among Republicans of the “realist” school or neo-isolationists of the Pat Buchanan ilk. State Department types also generally think of nation-building as a pipe dream promoted by provincials who can't even speak proper French. 

Liberals and Democrats used to be the strongest advocates of nation-building – recall President Clinton's attempt to resurrect Haiti – but such support is now scarce on the Left, apparently because President Bush has embraced the idea and if he likes it …well, to many on the Left that's all that needs be said.

There are decent people in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan and the West Bank. Is it really impossible to devise a way to help them build societies that don't support terrorism, that allow open debate, that lets them choose their own leaders, practice their religions freely and earn a living? The alternative is that these places collapse into anarchy and are then easily exploited by terrorists in their fevered quest to make the 21st century even bloodier than the one that preceded it.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.