TCS Daily

'Time Is Not On Our Side'

By Ken Adelman - March 6, 2002 12:00 AM

The new concern of those mildly (even grudgingly) supporting President Bush's war against terrorism is "American overstretch." The U.S. military is over-stretched, if not overwhelmed, by fighting in Afghanistan - which flared up again over the weekend - and far-flung chores in the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, and perhaps Indonesia. Logistics are nearly impossible, airlift in short supply, smart bombs stocks depleted, Special Forces run ragged. So let's not take aboard new assignments. Indeed, we simply can't.

For example, it is argued that taking down Saddam Hussein would be out of the question, at least until we finish these existing tasks. Our military moves into the Philippines and Georgia may have been too much already. But going anywhere else, anytime soon, would surely be disastrous.

It's a shrewd pitch and it's sure to engender backing by both anti-interventionist liberals and military-supporting conservatives. It's perfectly pitched for talk-show sound bites. But it's wrong. More importantly, it's dangerous.

It's wrong because the U.S. military is far mightier than thus portrayed, while today's military tasks are far narrower.

With an U.S. active duty force of 1.4 million troops, 10 full Army divisions, 3 full Marine divisions, 12 aircraft carrier battle groups, and 20 tactical fighter wings, the U.S. military can handle gobs of chores at once. We now have upwards of 250,000 troops abroad. A few thousand around and in Afghanistan, a few hundred in the Philippines and Georgia, and a few score elsewhere hardly constitutes overstretch.

And it's dangerous because, as President Bush said boldly during his State of the Union Address, "time is not on our side." The President then pledged to proceed on this basis: "I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer....If we stop now -- leaving terror camps intact and terror states unchecked -- our sense of security would be false and temporary. History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom's fight."

Hence did President Bush announce a new strategic concept - whether he realized it or not. It's "preemption." "Unconditional surrender" served us well in the global war against Nazism and fascism. "Containment" served nicely in the global war against communism. Henceforth "preemption" will serve us perfectly in the global war against terrorism.

Rather than focus on rollback, as we did with Nazi and Japanese aggression, or keep an expansive empire encaged, as we did with the Soviets, we must preempt threats to our security and civilization. As the most sophisticated weapons come into the most despicable hands, we must take pro-active steps to wipe out those weapons, or, better yet, those hands as well.

Containment worked wonders once, as it relied upon the inevitability of Soviet decay and on deterrence. As time went on, communism's rot would erode that system and the power upon which it rested. Meanwhile, fears of their own death and their society's destruction would keep Kremlin leaders from recklessness.

In today's world, none of these assumptions hold. The terrorists' world won't rot much further over time, as it's already pretty rotten. Regardless, they care little about their societies. Rather, they are filled with inexplicable bile against civilization, and divine justification from the Koran.

And unlike the Russians, terrorists don't fear their own death. Indeed, they welcome it, with all those brown-eyed virgins awaiting them in the afterlife. Again, they could care less about their own society's destruction.

In the pre-9/11 world, preemption seemed downright dangerous. Hence President Clinton could refuse to seize, or have slain, Osama bin Laden three times in the 1990s (according to the London Sunday Times). Well, we all saw the cost of that traditional approach on 9/11. Now we know better.

So we must act differently. How dreadful would it be if America was dealt another devastating blow - perhaps even greater than 9/11. More dreadful if we realized that President Bush could have prevented it - in the new jargon, "preempted" it - but chose not to because of armchair nattering about American overstretch.

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