Via e-mail from a regular OTB reader comes this rather bold Mark Helprin essay criticizing both Democrats and Republicans for their handling of the war:

America has approached the war on terrorism as if from two dreamworlds. The liberal, in which an absurd understanding of cause and effect, the habit of capitulation to foreign influence, a mild and perpetual anti-Americanism, reflex allergies to military spending, and a theological aversion to self-defense all lead to policies that are hard to differentiate from surrender. And the conservative, in which everything must be all right as long as a self-declared conservative is in the White House–no matter how badly the war is run; no matter that a Republican administration in electoral fear leans left and breaks its promise to restore the military; and no matter that because the Secretary of Defense decided that he need not be able to fight two wars at once, an adequate reserve does not exist to deal with, for example, North Korea. And in between these dreamworlds of paralysis and incompetence lies the seam, in French military terminology la soudure, through which al-Qaeda, uninterested in our parochialisms, will make its next attack.

While I think this caricatures both sides–or, at least, focuses on their extremes–there is truth here as well. The piece argues that, largely for domestic political reasons, we’re failing to properly identify our adversary and are thus striking only at the edges of the problem:

The war is waged as if accidentally, and no wonder. For domestic political reasons and to preserve its marginal relations with the Arab World, the United States has declined to identify the enemy precisely. He is so formless, opportunistic, and shadowy that apparently we cannot conceive of him accurately enough to declare war against him, although he has declared war against us. Attribute this to Karl Rove’s sensitivity to the electoral calculus in key states with heavy Arab-American voting, to a contemporary aversion to ethnic generalities, to the desire not to offend the Arab World lest it attack us even more ferociously, to the fear of speaking truth to oil, to apprehension about the taking of hostages and attacks upon embassies, and to a certain muddledness of mind that is the result both of submitting to polite and obsequious blackmail and of having been throughout the course of one’s life a stranger to rigorous thought. Reluctance to identify the enemy makes it rather difficult to assess his weaknesses and strengths. Thus, for want of a minimum of political courage, our soldiers are dispatched to far-flung battlefields to fight an ad hoc, disorganized war, and, just as it did in the Vietnam War, Washington explains its lack of a lucid strategy by referring to the supposed incoherence of its opponent. From the beginning, America has been told that this is a new kind of war that cannot be waged with strategic clarity, that strategy and its attendant metaphysics no longer apply. And because we cannot sufficiently study the nature of an insufficiently defined enemy, our actions are mechanistic, ill-conceived, and a function of conflicting philosophies within our bureaucracies, which proceed as if their war plans were modeled on a to-do list magnetized to some suburban refrigerator.

The enemy must and can be defined. That he is the terrorist himself almost everyone agrees, but in the same way that the United States extended blame beyond the pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor, it must now reach far back into the structures of enablement for the sake of deciding who and what must be fought. And given the enormity of a war against civilians, and the attacks upon our warships, embassies, economy, capital, government, and most populous city, this determination must be liberal and free-flowing rather than cautious and constrained, both by necessity and by right. The enemy has embarked upon a particular form of warfare with the intent of shielding his center of mass from counterattack, but he must not be allowed such a baseless privilege. For as much as he is the terrorist who executes the strategy, he is the intelligence service in aid of it, the nation that harbors his training camps, the country that finances him, the press filled with adulation, the people who dance in the streets when there is a slaughter, and the regime that turns a blind eye.

Not surprisingly, militant Islam arises from and makes its base in the Arab Middle East. The first objective of the war, therefore, must be to offer every state in the area this choice: eradicate all support for terrorism within your borders or forfeit existence as a state. That individual terrorists will subsequently flee to the periphery is certain, but the first step must be to deny them their heartland and their citadels.

This broader point has certainly been made before. But, short of launching another Crusade, how do we fight “radical Islam” as an entity? Helprin spends several paragraphs assessing the history that has made “Arabia” what it is and assessing the strategic situation. He concludes that,

The unprecedented military and economic potential of even the United States alone, thus far so imperfectly utilized, is the appropriate instrument. Adjusting military spending to the level of the peacetime years of the past half-century would raise outlays from approximately $370 billion to approximately $650 billion. If the United States had the will, it could, excessively, field 20 million men, build 200 aircraft carriers, or almost instantly turn every Arab capital into molten glass, and the Arabs know this. No matter what the advances in regional power, the position of the Arab Middle East relative to that of the United States is no less disadvantageous than was that of the Arab Middle East to the 19th-century European powers. But, given the changes listed in the previous paragraph, the signal strength necessary to convey an effective message is now far greater.


As of this writing, the army reportedly has 23 combat brigades, 18 of which are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, three of which are in refit, one in Kosovo, and two in Korea, leaving nine brigades, or about 45,000 men, to pick up the slack anywhere and everywhere else. Though independent echelons and the Marines increase this figure many fold, they do not have sufficient lift and logistics, and even if they did it would not be enough. This is as much the result of the Bush Administration’s failure to increase defense spending appreciably and rebuild the military before (and even after) September 11, as the lack of real shock and awe was the result of the administration’s desire to go to war according to a sort of just-in-time-inventory paradigm. Managers rather than strategists, they did not understand the essence of their task, which was not merely to win in Iraq but to stun the Arab World. Although it is possible, with just enough force, to win, it is not possible, with just enough force, to stun. The war in Iraq should have been an expedition originating in the secure base of Saudi Arabia, from the safety of which the United States could with immense, husbanded force easily reach anywhere in the region. The eastern section of the country, far from Mecca and Medina, fronting the sea, with high infrastructure and large spaces for maneuver, basing, and an air-tight defense, is ideal. Had the Saudis not offered this to us, we might have taken it, which probably would have been unnecessary, given that our expressed determination would likely have elicited an invitation. As it was, we were willing to alienate the entire world so as to thrust ourselves into a difficult situation in Iraq, but unwilling to achieve a commanding position in Saudi Arabia for fear of alienating the House of Saud. One might kindly call this, in that it is about as sensible as wearing one’s clothes backwards, “strategic hip hop.”

Frankly, I would have supported the use of small-scale nuclear weapons if we’d deployed them within a week or so of the attacks and had appropriate targets. But that moment has passed. There is little doubt that, were we of a mindset to lay waste to much of the Arab-Persian world, we could easily do so. For that matter, we could launch Iraq-style regime change operations–minus the messy occupation and rebuilding segments–in several locations in rapid succession. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it would likely have even been feasible from a domestic political standpoint. But the political and strategic rationale for not doing these things is manifold. Doing this would make us a pariah state and almost certainly spawn deep resentment and more terrorism down the line. While protecting the national security has to be the top priority of any state, it is not the only priority. The military option is one that we must always keep available, but it is not appropriate in every circumstance. One hopes that the Administration is right that toppling Saddam’s regime and putting in place a liberal government in Iraq will set in motion a sequence that will make the region less hospitable to terrorists. That remains an open question.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alan says:

    I’d say Helprin’s essay is radical, not just “bold.” He’s taken this point of view since 9/11 and even before: that the U.S. should assemble and wield for good purposes immense military power in the world. Although there’s value in critiquing the Bush administration and urging them on to bigger, bolder, more “strategic” action, it’s also a fact that in our current democracy Helprin’s solutions are utterly unworkable. America could not possibly assemble the national will to take those steps. Helprin is brilliant, but I think his bitter criticism of the President is overdone, and that your own points are well taken. My hope is that Bush, if re-elected, can build a stronger, tougher national will to favor action over dithering. But powerful forces are trying even now to drag him down.

  2. I do not think that what we are doing now is making enemies in the sense that my liberal friends might allege. However, I think “bold” action might do so, and create, as they say, “more Bin Ladens.”

    And there is the national will problem. There are those who complain every time the President so much as drinks a Diet Coke, because of the aggression it shows, its unilateralism, etc.

    I *did* love the image of turning the Arab-Persian cities into “molten glass.” Something horrific-yet-poetic about that.

  3. It’s close to impossible for a single individual to problematique a situation as complex as the War on Terror. But from the perspective of neglected insight Helprin’s contributions would be essential to building such a problematique, or thorough image of the problem, and ultimately to an effective war strategy.

    I agree with the comments concerning political will and feasability, but those might be more malleable than we suspect. The problem at the moment is that although there seems to be a great deal of attention being paid to technical polling and electoral strategy, that really isn’t the essence of “politics.” And for all this attention to detail, this administration is simply not very good at that art. If it were, it wouldn’t tolerate the shoddy and amateurish media strategies being employed in the War on Terror within the Middle East theater, where we’re essentially being out-foxed by practically everyone.


  4. Mark Buehner says:

    There is one more component to all of this that we easilly forget (and our media _much_ moreso), we don’t know everything. Not even close. There are doubtlessly operations and realities going on that would have huge implications for how this war is being fought. George Bush told us so directly in his 02 State of the Union, there will be periods of time and operations that simply cannot be for public consumption. It is the only way to fight a war. We have handed the sword to Bush, our only options now are to take it back or let him continue. You cannot run a war by committee.

  5. James Joyner says:

    But, Mark, that becomes rather problematic. If our choices are simply to let Bush do whatever he wants or take the job away from him–and we don’t even get to know what it is he’s doing, because it’s a secret–then that’s a rather easy choice. By and large, I think the Bush team is doing a good job. But they definitely could do a better job of explaining themselves. And, frankly, they owe us that. Sure, there are times when there will be things at an operational level that aren’t for public consumption. But that can’t be a blanket category.

  6. Patrick Brown says:

    I’m all for being tough on terrorists, but I think some of Helprin’s complaints about the Bush administration are poorly thought out. For example, he says the enemy must and can be defined, so that we can know and assess his strengths. Here’s Helprin’s definition:

    “For as much as he is the terrorist who executes the strategy, he is the intelligence service in aid of it, the nation that harbors his training camps, the country that finances him, the press filled with adulation, the people who dance in the streets when there is a slaughter, and the regime that turns a blind eye.”

    So in other words, the enemy is pretty much everybody in several large parts of the world. That’s NOT definition. That’s venting. It’s OK for armchair generals to talk that way, but people who can order other people’s deaths have to be more careful.

    Part of the problem may be that we’re like observers staring at the sky for signs of an invader. For two years, we’ve been waiting for the attack that didn’t come. That sky we’re staring at is a projective test – it has no features so we supply meanings from inside. For Helprin, the empty sky means unseen enemies, and unseen enemies can be more awful, more powerful than real, visible enemies. But Bush isn’t staring at that empty sky. He’s got a telescope, and a measured response to a real enemy.