Dave Palmer returned from the jungles of Vietnam to teach at West Point. His topic: The history of the Vietnam War. As there was no textbook on the still-raging conflict, Palmer wrote one.
At that point in the conflict, the American plan was simply to kill enough of the enemy to make them quit. Palmer’s textbook noted: “Attrition is not a strategy. It is, in fact irrefutable proof of the absence of any strategy.”
Attrition was not the strategy Washington had started with. It was the culmination of a multiyear effort to defend America on the cheap. That effort resulted in a costly and ruinous war.
Dwight Eisenhower had no interest in being the world’s policeman, bankrupting the U.S. with defense spending, or turning the nation into a garrison state. As part of the effort to keep U.S. military engagements to a minimum, he turned to covert operations, substituting stealth for force.
Successive administrations took that policy to the extreme. In his brief presidency, John Kennedy amped up the pace of U.S. covert actions, green-lighting 163 major ops in less than three years.
Lyndon Johnson piled on. When covert action failed to turn the tide in Vietnam, Johnson sent in ground troops. But, hoping to fight on the cheap, he followed a strategy of incrementalism — adding just enough force to get the enemy to quit.
The problem with incrementalism is that it allows the enemy to adjust. Ultimately, it becomes a deadly game of seeing who blinks first. Johnson’s cheap little war became a big and expensive one that he ultimately lost.
President Obama seems headed toward repeating the failed war-making strategies of Kennedy and Johnson. His new strategy attempts war on the cheap. It relies on drone strikes, SEAL Team 6 and other “tiny footprint” tactics.
These have their place, but over-reliance on them will create wars in the shadows, with no accountability or transparency. Worse, other countries won’t see the U.S. out front fighting to defend its interests and uphold the banner of freedom. Allies will see only a nation leading from behind, one that is, at best, uncommitted (at worst, indifferent) to their fate.
The president’s plan will dramatically hollow out our military, relying instead on a phantom empire of intelligence to maintain U.S. security. That approach draws on the worse impulses of colonial rule and the excesses of the U.S. secret campaigns of the Cold War.
Candidate Obama often (and wrongly) painted President Bush’s counterterrorism strategy as a combination of dubious secret wars and open-ended big wars. Ironically, President Obama’s new strategy promises to turn that caricature into a reality.
For all its missteps and mistakes, the Bush strategy produced measurable successes: dozens of attacks on the U.S. thwarted; a sharp reduction in attacks against U.S. targets abroad; an insurgency crushed in Iraq, and a similar strategy showing promise in Afghanistan. The strategy worked because it took the battle to the enemy and demonstrated resolve, perseverance and initiative.
Obama is now reverting to a minimalist use of force and influence. It has been tried before and proven anything but a prescription for peace. “Low-cost” covert operations are insufficient to manage the world and prevent bad things from happening. And when the really bad things do happen, the nation finds itself unprepared to deal with them because our military forces are hollow. Suddenly we must pay far more in blood and treasure than our “boutique” defense strategy has saved.
Future history books will note that George W. Bush led us into expensive wars that could be won. But Obama’s cut-rate strategy may well lead us into even bigger and more expensive wars of uncertain outcome.