The Landing Zone | 3.16.15
By Alan W. Dowd

We all know that America has been at war with al Qaeda and its offshoots since September 2001. What we forget is that they have been at war with America much, much longer. In fact, 22 years ago this month, Americans were still digging through the rubble of what was arguably al Qaeda's first attack on the United States: Ramzi Yousef's bombing of the World Trade Center. Yousef was an associate of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and a nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

The Bush Administration tried to prepare the American people for what the U.S. military calls the long war. Days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush braced America for "a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen," asking for "patience in what will be a long struggle." In 2006, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace spoke in terms of a global counter-insurgency lasting "20, 30 years." In fact, earlier this year, Gen. Martin Dempsey, current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, called the struggle against jihadism "a 30-year issue."

If we accept the timeline offered by Pace and Dempsey, we are just halfway through the war on terror. Indeed, if the headlines coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Nigeria and Libya, Paris and Ottawa, are any indication, the enemy is far from defeat. ISIS, al Qaeda, AQAP, AQIM, Boko Haram and the rest of bin Laden's heirs are surging. There are41 jihadist-terror groups  in 24 countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004. ISIS now numbers 30,000-plus fighters and controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Boko Haram has murdered, maimed and kidnapped its way through Nigeria, carving out an ISIS-style mini-state. The Taliban is circling Afghanistan's feeble and increasingly-friendless government.

That's the bad news.

The worse news is that the American people are not only war-weary but increasingly world-weary: 56 percent of Americans say stability and counterterror operations in Afghanistan are not worth the costs; 61 percent say anti-ISIS operations are failing; 74 percent say the U.S. should focus on problems here at home; 58 percent say the U.S. should not take the lead role in tackling international problems; and 52 percent say the United States "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own"—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.

If you accept that America is in the midst of a struggle for civilization, then this trend must be reversed. As Secretary of State John Kerry puts it, "Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about."

Policymakers can begin to remedy America's world-weariness by borrowing a page from Cold War history.

Consider the words of NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document that provided a roadmap for fighting Soviet communism and waging the Cold War. NSC-68 argued that success in the political-military-ideological-economic struggle against Soviet communism "hangs ultimately on recognition by this government, the American people and all free peoples that the Cold War is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake"; that America must summon the patience for a long, multi-faceted conflict with the "new fanatic faith" of communism; and that waging and winning the Cold War would require "the tenacity to persevere until our national objectives have been attained."

It is the duty of policymakers to deliver that sort of message—repeatedly—in order to build and sustain a critical mass of support for the long war against jihadism. As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter argues, "We need to be thinking about terrorism...as a more enduring part of our national security mission."

Adds Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency: "We have to energize every element of national power—similar to the effort during WWII or during the Cold War—to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational struggle."

Leadership, especially on matters of national security, is more often than not about setting a direction and a destination—and then persuading the American people to follow. Think about FDR steadily steering America away from isolationism and back onto the world stage; Truman making the difficult case for long-term global containment; Reagan reviving the nation's flagging commitment to what Truman began.

That's what leadership looks like in the realm of national security, and that's what is needed today.

But perhaps the worst news of all, as the nation continues to limp through its second decade fighting jihadism, is that America's Armed Forces are facing a morale crisis unlike any since the post-Vietnam era. A sobering survey  of active-duty troops conducted by Military Times reveals "a force adrift," with America's defenders reeling from deep cuts and feeling "underpaid, under-equipped and under-appreciated": 44 percent say pay is good/excellent, down from 87 percent 2009; 45 percent say health care is good/excellent, down from 78 percent in 2009; 27 percent say the senior military leadership has their best interests at heart, down from 53 percent in 2009.

This, too, can and must be corrected.

First, Washington needs to reverse the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration. Not only is sequestration shrinking the resources, reach and role of the U.S. military; it's also sending an unintended message that the military is somehow to blame for our spending crisis. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If sequestration continues to hack away at the American military, warns Thomas Donnelly  of the American Enterprise Institute, "We'll lose wars, our people in uniform will die, and we as a civilian society will have broken faith with the very small number of Americans who go in harm's way to defend us."

Second, national-security spending, policies, priorities and rhetoric must be brought back into harmony with one another. It's neither fair to the troops nor beneficial to the national interest for policymakers to slash defense spending while committing the U.S. military to stability operations in Afghanistan, open-ended counterterrorism campaigns in Iraq and Syria, an Ebola quarantine in West Africa, reassurance deployments in Eastern Europe, and expanded deterrence in the Pacific; to insist that the tide of war is receding even as U.S. troops fight and die in war; to sound like Vaclav Havel in one breath and Henry Kissinger in the next.

Speaking of Kissinger, the dean of U.S. statecraft recently put it well when he concluded that America "should have a strategy-driven budget, not a budget-driven strategy."

A strategy-driven defense budget, by definition, would put strategy first, define America's interests, and build a military to promote and protect those interests. A budget-driven strategy, on the other hand, puts budget and spending priorities ahead of strategic interests and national-security needs. As we are seeing in the wake of sequestration, a budget-driven strategy cuts indiscriminately, limits options and weakens the military.

Third, policymakers of all stripes—deficit hawks and disengagers, defense hawks and interventionists, realists and pragmatists—need to recognize or re-learn that maintaining a strong military makes military action less likely and is less costly than the alternative.

As Washington observed in his farewell address, "Timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it." Just compare military allocations, as a percentage of GDP, during times of war and times of peace:

  • In the eight years before entering World War I, the United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to national defense; during the war, U.S. defense spending spiked to 16.1 percent of GDP.

  • In the decade before entering World War II, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent of its GDP on the military annually; during the war, the U.S. diverted an average of 27 percent of GDP to the military annually.

  • Applying the lessons of deterrence, Cold War-era presidents spent an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense to keep the Red Army at bay, and it worked.

Of course, as Churchill conceded, deterrence "does not cover the case of lunatics." Terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, radicalized regimes like Iran, and death-wish dictators like Saddam Hussein may be the sort of enemies that cannot be deterred. But the peace-through-strength approach equips the United States with the capacity to defeat those who are immune from deterrence rapidly and return to the status quo. This is the secondary benefit of peace through strength, and it paid dividends in the pre-sequester era—from Kuwait and Kosovo to Afghanistan and Abbottabad.

But fewer troops, fewer ships, fewer planes, less modernization and less training translate into slower reflexes, a shorter reach and a smaller role for the United States—and more windows of opportunity for ISIS, al Qaeda and their kindred movements.

To slam those windows shut and win this long war against jihadism, the American people and their leaders must recognize that a well-equipped military is not a liability to cut but an asset to nurture.

The Landing Zone is Dowd’s monthly column on national defense and international security featured on the American Legion's website.