Thursday, March 16, 2006

Striking First

As expected, President Bush has reaffirmed the U.S. policy of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists and other adversaries. The continuation of this policy--which began after 9/11--was outlined in a 48-page national security document, released by the White House today. Publication of the document co-incided with a major speech by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who appeared before the U.S. Institute of Peace.

While stating that diplomacy is our preferred option for dealing with nuclear proliferation and other security challenges, Mr. Hadley noted that the "clearest" lesson of 9-11 is that the U.S. must confront threats before they fully develop. If diplomatic efforts fail, the document states, the U.S. retains the right to strike preemptively.

"If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack." "When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize."

The White House views the document as a realistic description of American strategy--and an equally honest depiction of our capability to enforce this doctrine. In the early stages of "The Long War" against terrorism, it could be argued that pre-emption is the only policy that makes sense, although the strategy document stresses the importance of diplomacy, and the need to work with allies.

Strategy statements and doucments always prompt debate over our military capabilities, and what types of forces we need to meet a changing threat. While critics of expensive naval and aerial platforms contend that we need more boots on the ground, I would argue that we need a more balanced approach, along the lines of what the Secretary of Defense has proposed. To fight terrorists on the ground, we certainly need more soldiers, Marines and special operations forces--that is undeniable. But to deal with rogue nations, advanced weaponry and nuclear proliferation, we also need the F-22 fighter, the Joint Strike fighter, enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilties, along with naval platforms that can project power and sustain sea lanes of communication.

It's an expensive proposition; the price tag for a single F-22 is around $80 million, and costs increase as the Air Force cuts its production numbers. The next-generation destroyer (DDX) and new submarines run more than $1 billion each, but we need their capabilities for what lies beyond the Long War--a possible confrontation with China, a nation that has literally re-armed itself over the past decade, and boosted its defense budget by 14% in 2005.

Pre-emption is not a perfect strategy, but in today's security environment, it's basically the only game in town. But transforming that strategy into concrete military capabilities will prove challenging. Administration critics and Democratic politicians have repeatedly attacked "big ticket" weapons systems as being expensive and unnecessary in the War on Terror. But taking a wider view--and looking at the threat picture as a whole--a compelling question emerges. To provide for the common defense--and allow pre-emptive strikes against emerging threats--which capabilities are you willing to give up?

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