hen George W. Bush was first elected president,
in 2000, I was a newly commissioned second lieutenant
in the U.S. Army going through infantry
training at Fort Benning. While still in college, I had vocally
supported John McCain in the primaries, but I voted for
my fellow Tennessean Al Gore in the general election. The
morning after election day, when we still didn’t know who
the next president would be, a group of us were gathered for
the morning’s formation, and one of the guys from Texas
was kidding me about my vote.
At that moment a captain walked by—one of the instructors—and, having overheard our conversation, took it upon
himself to upbraid me for my vote. While my peers stood
around looking embarrassed, the captain proceeded to explain
how eight years of Clinton/Gore had “broken” the U.S.
Army and that my vote against George W. Bush was naive
I wonder, looking back, where that officer is now and what
he thinks of his vote. (I also wonder whether or not he has reflected
on the illegality of admonishing a junior officer in front
of his peers for his politics, but that’s another matter.) What is
clear, more than six years after the first election of George W.
Bush, is that the Army was not in fact broken in the 1990s but
certainly is now. The mismanagement of the wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq has taken a heavy toll on the U.S. Army and Marine
Corps, and they will need years to recover.
The destruction of the Army and Marine Corps stemmed
from a failure of the Bush administration—its greatest failure:
the inability to articulate or even understand what kind of
war we’re fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As
any student of Clausewitz can tell you, if you fail to understand
the nature of the war you’re fighting, you’re doomed
before the first shot is fired.
Writing in the journal Survival, Australian David Kilcullen,
now a senior adviser to David Petraeus in Iraq, eloquently described
the kind of “global insurgency” against which not only
the United States but the established world order finds itself
struggling to defeat—from the bled of Algeria to the streets
of London. Any candidate serious about defense should carefully
read Kilcullen’s article. (And there’s another lesson here:
while men like Kilcullen and Petraeus and James Mattis of
the Marine Corps came to prominence during the Bush years,
their talents owe no allegiance to a party. A Democrat in office
would do well to retain their services and those of men like
them.) Understanding the nature of the fight is an indispensable
first step to making long-overdue policy changes.
When Republicans think of role models to follow for getting
tough on defense, they inevitably think of Ronald Reagan.
Democrats think of John F. Kennedy. Here the Democrats
are better placed than their Republican peers. Reagan
“won” the cold war by outspending his competitor—on
weapons systems, advanced aircraft, tanks, and so on. Today,
there is no Soviet Union to spend into submission, and
stealth bombers and nuclear submarines are hardly the weapons
of choice in a counterinsurgency fight.
Kennedy, by contrast, invested in weapons that are effective
against insurgencies and guerrillas, supporting the
Army Special Forces and fathering the Navy’s SEAL teams.
These kinds of weapons—not bombers or warships—are
best suited to fight a global insurgency. This provides an opportunity
to a Democratic candidate. For once, they can argue,
it’s the Republicans who are at sea on issues of defense
policy and who don’t understand modern war. We get it, they
can say. They don’t.
Hillary Clinton, still the front-runner in the Democratic
field, has worked admirably hard over the past six years to
burnish her defense credentials. She doesn’t look nearly as uncomfortable
around generals as her husband did as president
and is a careful student of defense policy. One gets the feeling
that many generals would be happy enough to trade this disastrous
presidency for a second Clinton administration.
Ironically, though, a young and innovative candidate like
Barack Obama may be as well positioned as anyone else to
articulate this new kind of conflict. The true counterinsurgency
experts in the Army today, after all, are not the generals—they are the young captains and lieutenants who have
learned counterinsurgency the hard way, on the streets of
Ramadi in Iraq and in the mountains of Paktia Province in
Afghanistan. The older, unimaginative general officer corps,
too wed to the old ways, has hardly covered itself in glory
these past five years.
Regardless of who the nominee is, I’ll carefully read and
listen to the statements that come from the Democratic candidates.
Because if they really get it, if they properly articulate
the nature of the war that began on September 11, then
a Democrat will earn my vote in 2008.
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