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Battling ambiguity

Politics | The Clinton administration's list of military objectives is almost as long as it is vague

Issue: "Is our military ready?," May 29, 1999

Kosovo and other hot spots seem far away as the small rented car wends its way up the Colorado mountainside. The landscape of still dormant vegetation is punctuated frequently by mule deer placidly feeding by the roadside. Nothing about the paved, nearly empty mountain road resembles the refugee-strewn muddy paths shown nightly on the news screen. And though storm clouds are gathering for an early spring rain, the dark clouds of Balkan war are far from evident. But appearances are deceiving. Deep within the bowels of the mountain, video monitors are alive with pixels of multicolored light that tell the story of a troubled world. Stern-faced men and women in the army, navy, and air force uniforms of two powerful countries hunch over electronic consoles. Among them, they monitor the entire surface of the earth. Originally established 33 years ago as the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, this facility inside Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs still performs its original mission: constantly monitoring the atmosphere over North America to warn of hostile missile attack. But now the facility is also home to the U.S. Space Command (USSC). The scope of these two organizations is immense. NORAD tracks about 2.5 million aircraft a year entering U.S. airspace, and USSC monitors about 8,000 man-made objects in space. With the facility's worldwide scope, multi-service makeup, and bi-national (U.S. and Canadian) staff, it is a microcosm of the military today. And like the larger military, it is continually asked a question that is wearing old: "What is your role now?" Things are just not as simple as they were during the Cold War. The past decade has been an active one for the military. It has endured a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy concerning homosexuals, agitation for combat roles for women, and scandals involving its highest-ranking leaders. It has taken part in operations in Panama, Rwanda, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. This is an operational tempo that has increased 300 percent since the end of the Cold War, according to Army Chief of Staff General Dennis Reimer, while American armed forces have been drastically reduced in size. On top of all this, the Clinton administration has handed it a vague new "grand strategy." Although this subject is not properly within their purview, military leaders still take much of the heat for it. This is what reporters ask about when they examine the military's role in the post-Cold War world. Military officer trainees are taught early that good leaders pursue fighting according to certain principles of war. The first one always is "objective." You must know what you're about, and go about it decisively. A country's highest leadership determines its military's grand strategic aim, and, not surprisingly, when that leadership is ambiguous in its daily conduct, its policies are likely to be ambiguous, too. The Clinton administration's grand strategy is officially called "Engagement and Enlargement." To anyone with an even remotely military mindset, this strategy sounds imperialistic-and perhaps, in a sense, it is. What the administration intends it to mean, however, is that the United States will "engage" the world by exerting its leadership abroad to deter aggression, foster peace, open foreign markets, help democratic regimes, and take on global problems. Likewise, the country will "enlarge" democracy worldwide in order to develop a global free market. Free markets will result in more reliable trading partners, which will in turn lower the likelihood of war. A case study in this approach is the administration's conduct toward China over the past several years. The administration does not adequately explain, however, how it expects nations with no history of democratic government to assume all the institutions and personal values that developed over thousands of years in the West. The means it tries to provide are the carrots of lucrative trade agreements and advice from international monetary organizations, and the stick of military reprisals. So when a country is reluctant to join the family of nations, the United States may respond militarily. And since the United States doesn't want to invade every country that offers resistance, other military options must be developed. Thus, while General Reimer states that "the U.S. Army exists to win the nation's wars," Army Vision 2010, a strategic document, also names many other missions. These include "defending or liberating territory, punitive intrusion, conflict containment, leverage, reassurance, core security, and humanitarian" missions. Each of these missions has sub-missions. Core security, for instance, includes counter-drug operations, illegal immigration control, and control of crime in the streets-all traditional civilian police functions. The military has responded by making its units smaller and more mobile, with virtually every initiative on the board following this trend. In this way, the military hopes to continue doing more with less. The truth of the matter, though, is that the military is not a policy maker. As military men are quick to point out, they only execute policy. When national policy is vague and subjective, the military's mission becomes very broad and not very deep. The need to cover contingencies is paramount. Thus, the military is trying to develop a force that can deal with every scenario it can conceive of. The Clinton administration's vague military policy stands in sharp contrast to previous well-defined policies. The Reagan administration demanded that six critical questions be answered affirmatively before committing armed forces, including "Is a vital national interest at stake?" and "Are the objectives clearly defined?" The Clinton administration has drifted far from these rigid criteria. Among more traditional uses of the military, force may now be used for less well-defined purposes: promoting democracy, preventing international crime and weapon proliferation, maintaining the credibility of the United States, and supporting humanitarian goals. The potential deployments for U.S. forces are virtually infinite. Thus, says General Reimer, "We have to be able to move the future force anywhere in the world, fast." But they must do so with scant resources. Congress and the administration have cut real defense spending every year since the Gulf War. Military men still evince a can-do attitude in their official documents and pronouncements, but from the top ranks to the bottom, they are not entirely sure what they can do. At some point, the unremitting requirement to do more with less frustrates even the most resourceful of men.

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