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9/11 -- and Counting

Similar rhetoric, different approaches: What distinguishes the way Roosevelt pursued WWII from President Bush's pursuit of the war on terrorism? Planning, the author says.
Similar rhetoric, different approaches: What distinguishes the way Roosevelt pursued WWII from President Bush's pursuit of the war on terrorism? Planning, the author says. (Bettmann/corbis)

As the president has repeatedly said, this is a new kind of war. If anything, he and his top aides have indicated, it is more comparable to the long, ideological struggle of the Cold War than it is to WWII. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has likened herself to her Truman-era predecessor, Dean Acheson, who wrote that he was "present at the creation" of Cold War containment strategy.

But here too the comparison is not flattering. Containment doctrine evolved swiftly after WWII. It began with George Kennan's famous Long Telegram in February 1946, in which he described what he later called "the sources of Soviet conduct," and culminated in NSC-68 in the spring of 1950. NSC-68 was no boilerplate: This internal policy document included precise requests for defense spending and projections for how America could outspend the Soviet Union. In just about four years, America had developed a strategy that ultimately prevailed.

Truman's Republican successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also an obsessive planner, dating from his days as Allied supreme commander. Within six months of taking office, in June 1953, Eisenhower convened a top-secret "Project Solarium" (named after the room where Ike decided on the approach) to forge a Cold War strategy in five weeks. Even Kennan later remarked that Ike had shown his "intellectual ascendancy over every man in the room" by taking command of the final meeting, accurately summarizing the three main approaches, and opting for Truman-style containment.

In December of 2003, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz presided over a secret "Solarium II" meeting to develop a grand strategy. But Bush wasn't there and participants said Wolfowitz himself read unrelated briefing papers during presentations. Solarium II came to no hard conclusions, one participant said.

Bush, of course, hasn't been sitting on his hands. He created the Department of Homeland Security and reorganized the intelligence community. He has done much of this only reluctantly, however, under public and congressional pressure. And as the confused response to Hurricane Katrina has shown, the rhetoric and stagecraft of planning often seem to take the place of real planning.

Real planning requires real understanding of the enemy, and today we may be even further away from that than on 9/11. In recent months, Bush has contributed to that by lumping Iraqi insurgents together with the "terrorists" as though there were one static group of global bad guys whom we would be fighting in our own streets if we weren't dealing with them in Iraq. But Bush's own generals have contradicted this view. Although the Iraq war has attracted foreign jihadists, U.S. generals say that the Iraqi insurgency is mainly composed of Iraqis, few of whom are members of al Qaeda and very few of whom would be attacking us in the streets of New York and Washington if we weren't in Iraq.

Some military thinkers believe that the international terrorist threat should be viewed as a kind of global insurgency that could last a decade or more. But if so, Pentagon planners say they have not agreed on any single counterinsurgency approach.

What would a true national strategy in the war on terrorism look like? At the very least, critics say, one thing was clear after 9/11: America's economy and security depended, because of oil, on a region that was far more unstable than we'd realized. So one effort at national mobilization should have been an energy policy that would slash our dependence on oil and unreliable Arab producers. Yet Bush's recent energy legislation, four years in the making, barely provided incentives for conservation or hybrid technologies while pouring billions in tax breaks into the search for new oil.

Compare this with FDR's national mobilization of U.S. industry in the early months of WWII, or the Cold War-era mobilization that led to the blossoming of U.S. science education, the space program and the Internet, and the differences are dramatic.

Four years into the war on terrorism, it's awfully late to begin devising a broad-based, detailed strategy for the complete destruction of terrorist groups like al Qaeda. Let's hope it's not too late. But the first step is to acknowledge that we haven't yet done it.

Author's e-mail:

Michael Hirsh covers foreign affairs for Newsweek and is author of "At War With Ourselves" (Oxford University).

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