The American Legion Magazine
October 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

Long before he served in the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald 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.”[1]

The problem, of course, is terrorism and its patrons, architects and infrastructure. That means the problem extends far beyond Afghanistan. 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 during the early phases of the war in Afghanistan, “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.”[2]

However, doing that 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. This simply has not yet 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 last September, 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.”[3] 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.”[4] Sudan and Saudi Arabia fall into this category. Until last October, so did Pakistan. However, in the intervening months, 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, Iraq 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 regimes in Iraq and North Korea seem 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.”[5] 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. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observes, they “have had years to entrench themselves, and they will not be dislodged without fierce and bloody resistance.”[6] However, Thatcher’s words should not dissuade America from carrying this war into the very heart of the global terror network. 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, the kind of war it will not survive.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration seemed to be guided by this grim reality. Then came Israel’s springtime counteroffensive in Ramallah, followed by nuclear saber-rattling in Kashmir, and the nascent War on Terror bogged down. Rather than incorporating these conflicts into the wider war, the White House seemed determined to quarantine its anti-terror campaign from them. As the spiral of events in South Asia and across the Middle East illustrates, this is a self-defeating proposition. Each terrorist attack, indeed each day these terror states and sub-state groups survive, advances their common cause and undermines civilization’s.

As evidence, just consider the past year, which saw terror’s foot-soldiers strike symbols of modernity in New York and Karachi, institutions of stability in Delhi and Washington, expressions of religious pluralism in Islamabad and Netanya. In just 12 months, the enemy killed 3547 people, wounded another 1080,[7] destabilized global economic markets, threatened friendly governments from Israel to India to Indonesia, exposed deep fissures between the United States and its friends in Europe, sent the Asian subcontinent careening toward a nuclear holocaust, and helped derail Washington’s plans to carry the war beyond Afghanistan.

When viewed through the prism of the War on Terror, these events—most of which occurred after the US-led liberation of Afghanistan—spell victory for the terrorists. And such disparate events will continue to translate into small victories for the enemies of civilization and small defeats for the civilized world until Washington recognizes these conflicts for what they are—local fronts in a global war.


Thankfully, there are indications that the White House is doing just that. After a season of hedging, the summer of 2002 became a turning point of sorts for the Bush administration. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge,” the president declared during a June visit to West Point.[8] Three weeks later, he put some of those enemies on notice: “I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror,” he intoned. “Every nation actually committed to peace must block the shipment of Iranian supplies to…regimes that promote terror, like Iraq,” he added. “And Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations.”[9]

The United States has good reason to put these regimes in its crosshairs: Once armed with nuclear or chemical weapons, these government and their terror partners could destroy not buses in Tel Aviv or buildings in Manhattan, but entire cities.

To prevent that, Bush has unveiled a “preemptive strike” doctrine, which promises to be costly. But as America learned on September 11, it is better to pay in treasure than with blood. As in 1941, 1951 and 1981, defense spending must again become a national priority. In its first post-September 11 budget, the White House earmarked $369 billion for defense—a 12 percent increase over the previous year. The OMB estimates defense outlays of $4.5 trillion over the next decade.[10] However, given the kind of war that lies ahead, even this figure may be too low. As Rumsfeld observed in testimony before the Senate in February, “In the Eisenhower and Kennedy era, we were spending about 10 percent of our gross national product on defense [and] over 50 percent of the federal budget on defense.”[11] The 2003 defense budget, by comparison, amounts to just 17 percent of the overall federal budget and a scant 3.3 percent of GDP.[12] According to historian Mark Helprin, if the United States invested merely “the peacetime average of the last half-century,” its current defense budget would be $655 billion.[13] If the American people refuse to muster even that with 3,000 of their countrymen erased without warning or cause, they never will. 

Of course, the American people haven’t really been asked to make such a sacrifice. But history reminds us that they will, as long as the president makes a persuasive case.  FDR had to convince an isolationist America to aid Great Britain prior to America’s entry into World War II. Harry Truman had to make the case for NATO and the Marshall Plan. On top of postwar reconstruction, Dwight Eisenhower asked the American people to double defense spending, fueling a costly and brutal arms race with Moscow—an arms race Ronald Reagan ended with a withering volley of military spending in the 1980s that ballooned the national debt.

Still, solving a problem this large will require more than new military doctrines and new arsenals. It 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. Among other things, the new department is forcing the nation to rethink security and brace for what President John Kennedy might have called a long, twilight struggle against terror. Bringing together such disparate agencies as the INS, Coast Guard, Customs Service, FEMA, and the Nuclear Incident Response office, the reorganization is both a substantive public-policy initiative and a symbolic example of the political-governmental transformation the nation must undergo to win this war.

A Fearsome Force?

Finally, if the War on Terror matures into a truly global campaign, US military commanders will have to become as audacious and fearless as the men they are sending into battle. But this all-important transformation of the military-command mindset is progressing slowly.

In May, we learned that “high-ranking uniformed officials” at the Pentagon had put the brakes on a military operation against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Setting aside the glaring problem that it is the Pentagon’s responsibility to execute national policy, not define it, one is left to ponder why these courageously anonymous officials decided to break the chain of command.

Reasonable people can disagree on the necessity or prudence of an imminent assault on Baghdad. If the brass steered the White House clear of Iraq in order to survey the home-front landscape, then one can respect their motives, if not their methods. Given the history of the last 30 years, it’s hard to blame Rumsfeld’s charges for being skittish. Americans have grown increasingly impatient and squeamish over these decades. In the shadow of Vietnam, the American people demanded short, painless wars. And the Pentagon delivered, each mini-war conditioning the American public to expect less blood and less sacrifice than the previous conflict. And this, in turn, conditioned the US military to be overly cautious, curbing its audacity and leading inevitably to more low-risk, low-impact wars.

Likewise, if the Pentagon concluded that hardware and manpower limitations make it impossible to remove Saddam Hussein while maintaining security commitments in Korea, Europe and the Pacific, then Helprin’s assessment is accurate. However, if there are latter-day McClellans roaming the Pentagon, the president should follow the example of Lincoln and send them into early retirement. Now is no time for timidity.

Once it is unfettered, the US military can be the most fearsome force on earth. Japan learned that in April 1942, just four months after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Doing the unthinkable, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle used Navy aircraft carriers to launch Army bombers into the skies over Tokyo. The bombers arrived in broad daylight, throwing a stunning counter-punch at Japan's once-invulnerable homeland and foreshadowing the war's devastating final blow.

When Stalin tried to squeeze the allies out of Berlin by blockading the city's western half, Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay blended the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency of a Detroit assembly line to sustain a city for an entire year and win the first battle of the Cold War. When all seemed lost in Korea, it was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who did the impossible by landing at Inchon, crushing the North Koreans and rescuing South Korea.

A dozen years later, when the Kremlin tried to tip the nuclear balance in Cuba, the Pentagon used a mix of restraint and rapid reflexes to face down Moscow and stave off Armageddon. As he watched the United States gather its forces and form a fist during those thirteen days in October, an awe-struck General de Gualle is reported to have remarked, “There is really only one superpower.” [14]

What was true in 1962 remains true today. After all, that’s one reason why America was attacked on September 11, and it’s why only the United States can marshal the resources needed to solve this problem. But if America fails to enlarge the problem and transform itself, terrorism’s war on civilization may soon grow too large and too deadly to be solved at all.

*This article was also reprinted as a chapter in At Issue: Are  Efforts to Reduce Terrorism Successful? (Thomson/Gale, 2005).

[1]“Rumsfeld’s Rules,” September 10, 2001, attributed to Dwight Eisenhower.

[2] Donald Rumsfeld, http://www.defenselink.mil/, October 7, 2001.

[3] George W. Bush, speech before joint session of Congress, September 20, 2002.

[4] George W. Bush, remarks at West Point, June 1, 2002.

[5] Bush, June 1, 2002.

[6]Margaret Thatcher, “Advice to a Superpower,” New York Times, February 11, 2002.

[7] US State Department, “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” May 21, 2002.

[8] George W. Bush, remarks at West Point, June 1, 2002.

[9] George W. Bush, remarks, June 24, 2002.

[10] OMB, “Summary of Tables,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/, 3-18-02.

[11] Rumsfeld.

[12] Rumsfeld’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, February 5, 2002.

[13] Mark Helprin, “Phony War,” National Review, April 22, 2002.

[14] See George Bush, Brent Scowcroft, “A World Transformed,” p.426.