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Not his father's war

By Charles Bloomer
web posted October 8, 2001

A common criticism of military leadership in any crisis is that generals tend to fight the last war. This criticism typically comes from the press that thinks military leaders are inflexible and incapable of adapting to current circumstances.

The criticism today, though, applies more to the press than to our military and political leadership in the war against terrorism. It appears that the press has been unable or unwilling to understand President Bush's approach to the current crisis, despite the fact that President Bush has been clear and concise in relating his strategy.

The United States' war on terrorism differs significantly from previous wars. Every war or conflict we have engaged in has been directed toward a clearly identifiable enemy associated with a state or states. Even our wars against "concepts", such as Nazism or Communism, have had countries that personified those concepts. This time, however, our efforts are to be directed toward a more nebulous enemy, an enemy not directly associated with any particular country.

President Bush seems to have clearly grasped the circumstances surrounding the war on terrorism. He has stated clearly that this war will be directed against terrorists and those countries that harbor or support terrorists. The primary targets of this conflict will be the terrorists "of global reach", wherever they are. Secondarily, those states that willingly support terrorists and fund their activities will be attacked.

U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell walk alone towards the Oval Office of the White House on October 4
U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell walk alone towards the Oval Office of the White House on October 4

The president has sent Colin Powell, his Secretary of State, out to work on building an international coalition to assist us in fighting terrorism. The critics were quick to criticize this action on two fronts. First, the makeup of the coalition has been determined to be unsatisfactory because it includes countries that are considered supporters of terrorism. This criticism assumes that any coalition that we develop will be permanent, and that the members of the coalition will have undue influence on the decisions and actions of the United States. Second, Secretary Powell has been criticized for his desire to approach this problem using diplomacy and international influence.

On both counts, the critics seem to have ignored what the president told us and the rest of the world. The president is developing a fluid coalition, a coalition of members that are willing at any given time to support our actions. When those countries no longer support us, they are free to drop out, especially as the US turns its attention to terrorist bases in countries outside of Afghanistan. The administration has made clear that the mission will drive the coalition; the coalition will not drive the mission. This point is amply summarized in President Bush's statement, "you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists". Other countries, other governments who desire to join in our fight with terrorism are welcome. But the United States will pursue its goals and mission regardless. No one will dictate to us the terms of our national security.

The actions of the Secretary Powell should come as no surprise, nor should they indicate some sort of ominous schism in the administration. The Secretary of State is the president's senior diplomat, whose job it is to deal with the world using diplomacy and influence. That Secretary Powell is not acting bellicose is not a sign that the US is going soft or is not prepared to use force to achieve its mission.

The president has stated that this will be a war on many fronts. Diplomacy is one of those fronts. Just as the administration has frozen assets of suspected terrorist groups on the financial front, so too the administration is applying pressure on the diplomatic front, while at the same time, making military preparations.

President Bush was smart enough to surround himself with good people. He did not chose for his cabinet a bunch of "yes-men". He chose his advisers based on their knowledge and expertise. That these advisers may disagree should come as no surprise. The president understands the relationship between him and his cabinet members - they advise, he makes the decisions. The president will make better decisions when presented with several sides to an issue than he would if he listened to sycophants who tell him what they think he wants to hear.

President Bush has done much better grasping the complexity of his proposed war on terrorism than has the press and other organizations, including our allies at NATO. He realizes that this is not his father's war. The president has come up with a complex war plan that reflects the complexity of the problem. This time the critics are trying to fight the last war.

Charles Bloomer is a Senior Writer at Enter Stage Right. He can be contacted at clbloomer@enterstageright.com. © 2001 Charles Bloomer

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