The Finality of Evil

America vs. Human Nature


From the audacious title, to an opening that quotes Thomas Paine's rebuke of the "sunshine patriot," to a proposal for immediately widening the war against al-Qaeda to include Hamas and Hezbollah, An End to Evil is a worthy election-year polemic from Richard Perle and David Frum. The work is clearly meant to help define foreign policy for a second Bush Administration, and it may well do that if sloganeering continues to displace actual strategic planning.

Perle and Frum (P-F, for now) are very good at what they do: arguing for a robust exercise of American power at each and every potential and perceived threat. They obviously and honestly think that bold action will make Americans safer. P-F would literally spend whatever is necessary, "borrow responsibly," and build a force capable of confronting evil anywhere on the planet.

But is that even possible, let alone the right goal?

"The United States may be able to defeat, even destroy, al-Qaeda, but it cannot rid the world of terrorism, much less evil," is how Jeffrey Record concludes his recent study on the war on terror. Though P-F try to dismiss Record with the defeatist-pessimist label they are so fond of attaching to contrary views, he has some standing as a professor in the Department of Strategy and International Security at the Air Force's Air War College.

P-F try to anticipate criticism from professional military strategists by asserting that the Pentagon is trapped by blinkered thinking, doomed to fight yesterday's wars. Yes, there is surely some of that. But that stain does not indict everyone. In fact, considering Record's background it is hard to shoot him down as obviously hostile to the P-F worldview. The Air Force's Air War College is not some muddy-boots, let's-charge-up-the-hill institution. Record also did a tour as a staffer for Sen. Sam Nunn (D.-Ga.). That's Nunn, an heir to the Henry "Scoop" Jackson line of pro-defense Democrats, which at one time counted a young Richard Perle among them.

In the 1980s Nunn helped along two key aspects of the current P-F strategy, the B-2 bomber and the closing of obsolete military bases in pursuit of a leaner, meaner force. It might be only a slight stretch to say that without Nunn's support neither would've happened. So Record's pedigree is not obviously impeachable as defeatist-pessimist.

And when Record says that the war on terror "violates the fundamental strategic principles of discrimination and concentration," P-F need to have some rejoinder. And they do not.

Further, Record notes that the Bush administration thus far has conflated threats from various sources into one great meta-threat, oblivious to opportunities and tactics which might cleave the whole jumble of bad actors in coherent, deterable, and defeatable chunks. The greatest mistake, Record reasons, is lumping rogue states together with terrorist groups:

Or to put it another way, unlike terrorist organizations, rogue states, notwithstanding administration declamations to the contrary, are subject to effective deterrence and therefore do not warrant status as potential objects of preventive war and its associated costs and risks. One does not doubt for a moment that al-Qaeda, had it possessed a deliverable nuclear weapon, would have used it on 9/11. But the record for rogue states is clear: none has ever used WMD against an adversary capable of inflicting unacceptable retaliatory damage. Saddam Hussein did use chemical weapons in the 1980s against helpless Kurds and Iranian infantry; however, he refrained from employing such weapons against either U.S. forces or Israel during the Gulf War in 1991, and he apparently abandoned even possession of such weapons sometime later in the decade. For its part, North Korea, far better armed with WMD than Saddam Hussein's Iraq, has for decades repeatedly threatened war against South Korea and the United States but has yet to initiate one.

The P-F world view explicitly rejects deterrence against states, groups, and—one suspects—that loud-mouthed kid down the block. Only direct action will suffice, action like a blockade against North Korea until its government falls and China becomes responsible for the resulting basketcase. Oh, but first the U.S needs to move its troops out of range of the nuclear hell that might rain on Seoul.

P-F also refuse to discriminate between different terror groups. To them a terror attack anywhere is part of the same fabric of evil. In doing so they effectively defuse Record's reductio ad absurdum argument that the U.S. cannot fight Basque terrorists and the Tamil Tigers too, can it? Sure we can, P-F say.

But this position then commits the U.S. to a dangerous path. Record notes that "this objective is both unattainable and strategically unwise. It is unattainable because of the sheer number and variety of terrorist organizations. It is strategically unwise because it creates unnecessary enemies at a time when the United States has more than enough to go around."

Treating all bad actors just the same might be fine if you are a judge or a prosecutor, but as a dispenser of scarce military resources it is recipe for disappointment, if not defeat.

"Even if all terrorism is evil, most terrorist organizations do not threaten the United States. Many pursue local agendas that have little or no bearing on U.S. interests," Record says. Those elements which pose the greatest threat to U.S. must draw the greatest attention.

What ultimately sinks the P-F call for perpetual war against all evil is its refusal to acknowledge the limits to American military power. They severely underestimate the need for American manpower to secure victories that superior firepower mated to a steely will might win. Record notes that Bush administration war planners had hoped for no more than 60,000 boots on the ground in Iraq at this stage instead of nearly 200,000 allied troops now in country. P-F inexplicably recall Pentagon brass predictions of 250,000 troops required to do the job as proof of the Army's hide-bound ways.

Moreover, P-F do not seem to appreciate, even as they heap much-deserved praise on U.S. forces, that America may not soon possess the fighting force it had in spring of 2002. Men and machines wear down in the crucible of combat. The massive troop rotation now under way and vaguely imperial "stop-loss" orders may paper over shortcomings, but these limitations still circumscribe the range of the possible for U.S. military forces.

But a doctrine that declares war on human evil does not recognize this element of reality. The next step is clear: declare war on the second law of thermodynamics.