The Third War on Terror

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Army photo / Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod

Paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division discover a weapons cache during a sweep through Ghanzi province in Afghanistan in June.

How does President Obama’s approach to tackling terror resemble President Reagan’s? It’s not a trick question. John Arquilla has a nifty comparison of the two commanders-in-chief and their approaches to dealing with terrorism.

Arquilla, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, has long been one of the most interesting defense analysts around. You may not agree with him, but he doesn’t bore you with pablum and platitudes.

“[Former President George W.] Bush chose to attack other nations in his attempt to create a less permissive international environment for terrorist networks,” Arquilla writes. That was the second war on terror. “Obama has decided to take the more direct approach: going straight after the networks.” That’s the third war.

Ronald Reagan launched the first war on terror in the mid-1980s. But just like Reagan, Arquilla argues — in a recent posting on Foreign Policy’s website — that the institutional military is hampering Obama’s potentially smarter way to take on the terrorists:

The signal success of this first war on terror came in a campaign against the Abu Nidal Organization — the al Qaeda of the ‘80s — which was conducting terrorist hits for hire on behalf of Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Some of the network’s hidden finances were detected and, instead of freezing or seizing these funds, they were covertly moved about in ways that convinced Abu Nidal that many of his operatives were embezzling. He had about a hundred of his agents bumped off, which did little good for the morale of the others. Soon the organization was all but defunct.

Despite this success, and for all of Reagan’s enthusiasm and Shultz’s support, little else came to pass. This was because many senior military leaders worried about the ethics of Reagan’s war on terror — specifically that the use of paramilitaries and special operators would lead to what then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger called an “unfocused revenge approach” that would lead to the deaths of innocents. Besides, the Pentagon preferred more conventional uses of force — like the massive air raid on Libya in 1986 in retaliation for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by GIs. Soon there was a Weinberger Doctrine that codified this conventional approach, a later corollary to which, the Powell Doctrine, demanded that this kind of force be applied “overwhelmingly.”

Weinberger won what William Safire called “the battle for Reagan’s strategic soul,” and nothing like the clever coup against Abu Nidal was ever repeated. Thus the pressure on nascent subversive networks eased, and the hydra’s teeth were sown, soon to bring forth a new generation of 21st century terrorists. And the Weinberger/Powell approach was slavishly followed — for the most part — in the wake of 9/11, embroiling the United States in the two costly nation-building debacles that have characterized its second war on terror.

Enterprising thinking. Full thing here.