American Outlook Today
October 24, 2003
By Alan W. Dowd  

After reading Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s “leaked” memo and watching the perfunctory media frenzy, I couldn’t help but wonder why all the fuss? To anyone who has followed Rumsfeld since September 11, the memo expressed nothing more or less than what he’s been pushing all along. Sure, he’s been a bit more optimistic behind the podium than in this internal memo, but he has said over and over how important it is to transform the thinking inside the Pentagon, to try new things, to do the unconventional. After all, that’s what the Afghanistan campaign was; that’s why he rejected numerous iterations of the Iraq war plan; that’s why the Iraq campaign went so well and perhaps why the postwar hasn’t gone so smoothly; and that’s why he’s ruffled so many feathers among the brass and bureaucrats. 

To his credit, Rumsfeld isn’t trying to distance himself from the memo or equivocate. In fact, by putting his hard questions front and center, he’s doing his country a great service, as he has throughout the war. 

Long before he served in the Bush administration, Rumsfeld began collecting little morsels of common and not-so-common sense. Dubbed “Rumsfeld’s Rules,” the collection of wit and wisdom is virtually required reading in Washington. However, with the next step in the War on Terror hindered by Beltway worries over a wider war, it appears that at least one of Rumsfeld’s rules is being ignored: “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.”  

The problem, of course, is terrorism and its patrons, architects and infrastructure. That means the problem extends far beyond Afghanistan, far beyond bin Laden’s al Qaeda. If nothing else, September 11 taught the United States that terrorism’s war on civilization cannot be contained to faraway places, within tidy geographic boundaries. Consequently, neither can civilization’s war on terrorism.  As Rumsfeld observed in October 2001, “The only way to deal with these terrorist threats is to go at them where they exist…to take the battle to where they are.” Two years later, this same sense of movement and offense is restated in his leaked memo. 

Rumsfeld knows that taking the battle to the enemy over the long haul requires the American people, along with their government and military, to reevaluate the way they look at the entire world, as they did at the outset of the Cold War. In Rumsfeld’s view, this still hasn’t occurred in the War on Terror. Until it does—until the war becomes an overlay for every hotspot and conflict on the globe, a prism through which everything else is considered—the roots of global terrorism will remain intact. And America’s anti-terror campaign will not achieve what the American people demand.  

The first step in reversing this course is to follow Rumsfeld’s rules, and enlarge the problem. In short, mission creep should not only be expected in the War on Terror—it should be encouraged. 

Hard Facts

But how large is large enough? President George W. Bush was on the right track in September 2001, when he spelled out the doctrine that bears his name. “Our enemy,” he explained, “is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” The network extends into 60 countries, many of which oppose terrorism but lack the means to combat it. This category includes such disparate places as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Somalia, Georgia and even Colombia. 

Next, there are countries that, in Bush’s words, “oppose terror, but tolerate the hatred that leads to terror.” Sudan and Saudi Arabia fall into this category. Until October 2001, so did Pakistan. However, Pakistan has proven with words and actions that it is indeed an ally in the War on Terror. The picture is not so clear for the Saudis and Sudanese.  

Finally, there is the hard core of terrorism. We know them well, some of them too well—Libya, Arafat’s Palestine, Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Of course, even this group can be broken down into subgroups. Libya is slowly limping away from its old ways. Given the right incentives or pressures, Syria and proto-Palestine might choose the path of reform. Iran has a growing reform movement of its own, while the regime in North Korea—like Saddam’s Iraq—seems sadly beyond reform or repair.  

Still, the United States cannot wage the War on Terror based on hope and hypotheticals. Washington must deal with the hard facts of the here and now. The facts are that along with terrorist organizations such as al Queda, the al-Aqsa Martyrs and others, these governments have come together at what Bush calls “the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology.” Some have money, some have intelligence capabilities, some have technology, some have personnel, some have weapons of mass destruction, and all of them have motive. Whether they comprise an “axis of evil” or something else is irrelevant. These groups and states do exist, and as long as they continue to poison the planet, they are a threat to the civilized world.  

Who’s Winning?

Unraveling terror’s hard core will obviously be far more difficult than toppling the heroin dealers who ruled Afghanistan or ousting Saddam Hussein, and that’s what Rumsfeld is saying to his team through this memo. To borrow the parlance of the Cold War, the United States must be prepared to roll back every regime that supports terror. This is not to say that US troops need to be omnipresent for the war to be successful. However, it does mean that if a government is unable to move against terrorists inside its borders, the US military will have to help (as it has in Georgia and the Philippines). And if a government refuses that help, it is choosing war—the kind of war visited upon the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the kind of war it will not survive.  

Even so, the Rumsfeld memo is a reminder that this war cannot be fought solely on the field of battle. Again, this assessment is not new. In November 2001, Rumsfeld argued that “Victory will require that every element of American influence and power be engaged.” Like the Cold War, this is a war of ideas as much as weapons. To defeat the Islamist ideology, the United States will have to outlast it, out-argue it, out-think it, out-spend it, out-maneuver it, and out-fight it. It is a conflict that blends all the killing and suffering of traditional warfare with all the tension and uncertainty of the Cold War to produce something different—a colder, harsher war.   

The postwar efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq offer only a glimpse of the ambidexterity and endurance required to win this “colder war.” The setbacks and surprises in postwar Iraq should not dissuade us from continuing the multi-sided, multi-front war. 

Which may be one reason why Rumsfeld is showing latter-day McClellans the door. TO win this war, US military commanders will have to be as audacious and fearless as the men they are sending into battle. Now is no time for timidity—inside the Pentagon or anywhere inside the Beltway, for that matter. Solving a problem this large will require a genuine transformation of the United States government. Washington’s decision to create a Department of Homeland Security may signal that such a transformation is underway, but the reorganization is just the beginning of the political-governmental transformation the nation must undergo to win this war. 

Rumsfeld may or may not be a good secretary of defense—a job which requires a mix of marketing, salesmanship, diplomacy, nuance and schmoozing—but as Gen. Tommy Franks said, “he is a hell of a secretary of war.” The Pentagon and White House would do well to contemplate his questions and heed his words.

*A version of this piece appeared in the October 2002 issue of The American Legion Magazine.