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The Unlearned Lessons of 9/11

by Douglas Macgregor

Republished from UPI: September 12, 2007

WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 (UPI) Nations and their leaders tend to learn by experience, which means they often discover the right way forward only when it is too late. America, alas, is no exception to this rule. Unable to directly challenge U.S. military dominance, Islamist terror groups exploited America’s open borders and poor internal security to evade the U.S. military and strike directly at the American people on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the Islamist threat that revealed did not suggest the need to garrison Iraq or the Persian Gulf with U.S. and allied ground forces any more than Muslim terrorist attacks on British citizens in the years since 2001 would justify a British military occupation of Pakistan.

Worse, the Bush administration allowed ideology and wishful thinking to define military objectives in Iraq -- and the military went along. Whenever political ideology trumps military strategy, the resulting military action defies strategic logic because its aim is to fulfill an ideological purpose, not a valid military mission.

In 2000 Condoleezza Rice told Foreign Affairs, "American values are universal."

That four-word sentence summarizes the problem. American values are not universal. They are Western, primarily English-speaking values rooted in English common law, including respect for private property and minority rights. These values are not exportable at gunpoint as demonstrated repeatedly in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Faced with opposition in Iraq, they did not understand the generals’ solution to the chaos and hostility was to apply more and more force, branding any Iraqi who actively opposed the foreign military occupation of their homeland as an “al-Qaida terrorist.”  This rigidity of mind paralyzed American generalship, not simply because it obstructed adaptation in tactics and organization, but because it meant they were measuring the wrong kind of success.

In the end, American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines killed many who didn't deserve to die, inadvertently jailed or failed to protect many of those we were supposed to be helping, and above all failed to meet the unrealistic expectations of impoverished Muslim Arabs who expected occupying U.S. forces to make them rich and comfortable like Americans on TV in a matter of months.

The huge failure of leadership that represents should make everyone wary of the recent testimony from Gen. David Petraeus.

Petraeus, like his peers, is a product of an Army in which confronting contentious issues has always been risky. It is no accident that President Roosevelt was forced to promote a one-star general named George Marshall to four stars on the eve of World War II. Normally, when anything new or different from the status quo is proposed inside the Army, officers learn to avoid taking a definitive stand. Until the four-stars in charge reach a consensus, signing up is risky.

This culture diverts valuable time and resources into endless studies or planning activities while the generals wait to see if current operations or initiatives, though failing, still manage to produce something positive. Moreover, officers who want to be generals learn to modify the truth when important information is passed upward. Even when there is no progress in a critical area, ambitious officers are quick to modify the truth, saying, “We are making slow, but effective progress.”

After 1991 this ingrained, dysfunctional culture worsened with each passing year. The Army generals insisted on reliving the defeat of Iraq’s large, but ineffective army in years of sterile, Cold War simulations designed to reward the commitment of masses of men and firepower in what the generals lovingly called “overwhelming force.”

Though lip service was paid to change, substantive proposals for new directions in ground force modernization, organization, tactics and thinking about warfare were rejected and their proponents in uniform marginalized.

“After all,” a succession of Army four-star generals told everyone, “We won Desert Storm!”

The generals who brought us the Iraq debacle Abizaid, Casey, Sanchez and Petraeus flourished in the professionally and intellectually oppressive climate of the 1990s where the only deliverable of importance was conformity with whatever the four-stars wanted.  Now, knocked off balance by the dead-ended campaign to secularize and democratize Muslim Arab Iraq, the Bush administration leaves behind an American military leadership mired in confusion about its future strategic purpose together with armed services that remain expensive tributes to the past.

Thanks to a president who behaved as though he possessed unlimited military and political power and the unconditional support of a job- and pork-hungry Congress, instead of meeting our security needs, the senior military leaders of the U.S. Armed Forces successfully resisted pressure to shift their thinking and organizations away from the war mobilization paradigms of the Cold War.

The time for new thinking is at hand. The strategic choice for American political and military leaders is whether we will continue to use American military power in attempts to transform other peoples’ societies and cultures into reflections of our own, or whether we will employ our military power to maintain our highly successful market-oriented English-speaking republic, a republic that respects the cultures and traditions of people different from ourselves and trades freely with other nations but vigorously protects its global security interests, its commerce and its citizens.

Given the combined impact of our experience in Iraq and the constraining influence of runaway deficit spending on future defense budgets, the next president, regardless of party affiliation, will have to set aside the blinding influence of uncompromising ideology, the secular variant of religion, and seek a new mix of American military leadership, means and strategy.

Douglas Macgregor is a former Army colonel and a decorated Gulf War combat veteran, now writing for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is the author of Transformation Under Fire (published by Praeger, 2003), Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century, (published by Praeger, 1997), and The Soviet-East German Military Alliance, (published by Cambridge University Press, 1989). His newest work, Character under Fire: The Battle of 73 Easting will be appear later this year.

Also by COL Douglas MacGregor on DNI: Fire the Generals! April 30, 2007