Figuring Out What To Do and How to Do It

David Tucker

September 1, 2001

When President Bush said on September 11th that we would wage war against terrorism, it is fair to say that no one, including the President, knew exactly what that meant.

At first, when describing the struggle that lay ahead of us, the President and the Secretaries of Defense and State said little more than that it would be a new battlefield or a new kind of war. But other officials spoke of retaliation, which is not what war is about. In his first remarks on September 12th, Secretary of State Powell said that acts of war had been committed against the United States but also that we would bring the perpetrators to justice, which made the attacks appear to be crimes rather than warfare.

This initial confusion or uncertainty should not be surprising. What has occurred is unprecedented. It is like terrorism in the means used, hijacked planes, and in the people involved, members of secret non-state organizations. But the motive, reducing the United States to a shadow of itself, as bin Ladin, now declared to be the prime suspect, once put it, was more like war.

Since those initial statements, the staffs of the Defense and State Departments and the National Security Council have been working long hours thinking through what we must do. As they develop their analyses, they are presented to the Secretaries and National Security Advisor and ultimately the President. Having absorbed this information and the intelligence briefings they have heard, these senior officials have expressed in their public remarks an increasingly clear idea of what this new war must be like.

They know now that bin Ladin’s network is extensive, with elements in dozens of countries; that it cannot be hit with the traditional weapons of war even in Afghanistan, because it does not have substantial targets such as large facilities and weapons systems; that, therefore, we must use indirect means to strike at this network, such as measures to disrupt its finances. They know that it will be difficult to conduct military operations of any sort in Afghanistan, because of its mountainous terrain and its isolation from our support bases. They know as well that we will need the support of many different countries to succeed and, after numerous phone calls with the leaders of countries around the world, that winning the full and sustained cooperation of most of those countries will be a difficult thing to do. Above all, considering all of this, they have come to realize in detail why the war will be long and difficult.

What the President has learned since September 11th is what National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was referring to when she told reporters the day before the President’s speech to Congress on September 20th that “the president feels an obligation to bring the American people along with him in his thinking; to bring them along with him in his deepening understanding of what it is we face.”

We can be sure that the understanding of the President and his advisors will continue to deepen as we begin to respond and events continue to unfold.


Judging from public comments, one thing the administration has apparently figured out is that our strategy, how we will fight this war, must include efforts against both the terrorists and the states that support them. But the details of this approach are still under discussion. Indeed, press reports indicate that a disagreement exists between those who want a broad approach, going after all terrorists and state sponsors or as many as we can manage at one time, and those who want a narrow approach, concentrating first on bin Laden and Afghanistan, his base of operations.

Officials in the Defense Department reportedly advocate the broad approach, while Secretary Powell is said to favor a narrower approach. To some extent, as the reporting indicates, this difference of opinion is the result of the bureaucratic positions that the different officials hold. Secretary of State Powell, unlike officials at the Defense Department, must persuade nations to share information with us and allow us to fly over and even set up bases on their territory and to work with us to disrupt terrorist networks that operate within their borders. Secretary Powell’s work will be harder if we press for a response that goes beyond dealing with the author of the brutal attacks that have won us so much sympathy and support.

There is more at issue in this dispute than just bureaucratic interests or prejudices, however. It is really one of the fundamental decisions we face. The President has declared that we must fight terrorism as such and not just those who organized the attack on September 11th. In seeking to achieve this goal, do we design what we think is the most effective plan and see who will join us or do we tailor our response from the beginning so that we can keep as many countries in the coalition as possible?

Either of these alternatives could turn out badly. Designing a plan without taking into account the concerns of other countries could leave us without the support we need—overflight and basing rights, intelligence and political support—to carry out the plan. Tailoring our response to gather maximum support could leave us with a weak, ineffective plan.

To sort out this problem we need to set some priorities. We need to decide who are the terrorists that pose the most immediate threat and which are the countries whose cooperation we most need if we are to deal with the most threatening terrorists. Once we have done these things, we will be able to plan properly. Having dealt with the most immediate threat, we can repeat the exercise to deal with the next most immediate threat.

On balance, as far as one can tell from reading the press reports, it appears that the Secretary of State is thinking most effectively at the moment about strategy. He wants to focus on bin Ladin as the greatest threat and devise a response that will keep those countries critical to our success in dealing with bin Ladin fully supporting us.

Crisis Management

If it is lucky, an administration gets a small foreign policy crisis early in its tenure during which it can make mistakes and from which it can learn without getting anyone killed or doing too much damage to the country. One of the most important things it needs to learn is how to blend the skills of its different departments and agencies and the personalities of those who lead them.

For the Reagan administration, this first crisis was the kidnapping by terrorists in Italy of General Dozier the senior American officer at NATO’s Southern Command, on December 17, 1981. The Reagan administration’s response to this terrorist act was unorganized and ineffective. The Italians eventually recovered the General without much help from the United States or serious injury to him or anyone else. The administration learned from this episode. Although it made other mistakes in handling crises and problems, its national security planning and management steadily improved.

The Clinton administration was not so lucky. It was unprepared for the events in Somalia, which was in reality a small problem that became a big one when 18 American soldiers were killed in Mogadishu on October 3, 1993. This debacle had many causes but one was a decision-making system that did not effectively blend the knowledge and skills of the State Department or the civilian and military leaders of the Defense Department. In addition, both the President and the Secretary of State admitted that they had not paid enough attention to what was going on in Somalia. The Clinton administration learned from these mistakes, however, and was better prepared to manage our response to subsequent problems in Haiti and Bosnia.

The Bush administration’s first foreign policy crisis is not small. In its favor, however, is the fact that many of its key officials are very experienced. Still, they have not worked together in their current configuration and several of the administration’s senior leaders are strong personalities. The current disagreement between the Secretary of State and Defense officials could be beneficial if it is managed properly because it could lead through argument to a full review of the possibilities before us. If not managed properly, it may lead to a disorganized response that will make the implementation of our strategy quite difficult.

Special Operations Forces

Press reports over the past several days have talked of the significant role that Special Operations Forces (SOF) will play in the war against terrorism. We should keep two things in mind about these forces.

First, they are a small part of our military. Their budget takes up only somewhat more than 1 per cent of the defense budget. The total force consists of only about 45,000 personnel, of which about 25% are in the reserves or National Guard. This force should have a significant role in the war against terrorism because it is the best force we have for both the protracted, small-scale operations and sudden lightning raids that we must conduct if we are to succeed against the enemy we face. If they play this significant role, then we will need to set priorities among the terrorist organizations and state sponsors we want to fight in order to avoid exhausting this scarce resource.

Second, SOF are highly trained and very skilled. They need to be because they often undertake high-risk operations that aim at critical objectives. Since the operations are high risk, they do fail despite the skill and training of SOF. Since the objectives they aim at are critical, the failures often have broad strategic and political consequences. The failed effort to rescue the hostages in Iran is one example. A more recent one is the raid in Mogadishu that lead to the 18 killed in action. This failure lead to the collapse of our policy in Somalia, as the American people rightly questioned whether the loss of American lives was worth the benefit of saving the Somalis from themselves.

If SOF are used in the war against terrorism, we should assume that failure and casualties will occur. The administration can limit the potentially far-reaching consequences of these reverses by carefully weighing the benefits of proposed operations to make sure that the risks they entail are worth it. It must also prepare the American people for the fact that such reverses may occur and remind them why such risks must be run.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.