Tuesday, January 20, 2004


Glenn Reynolds links to Showstoppers, a Weekly Standard article by Richard Schultz, which describes the different ways which members of the Clinton and Bush administrations found to avoid using Special Operations Forces against Islamic terrorism, even when they had manifestly become a threat. The State Department led the effort to classify terrorism as a crime, not an act of war. Others believed that terrorism simply had to be endured, a chronic blood-price that had to be paid for the leadership of the world. Then there were brass who feared embarking on any action that would lead to American casualties, who saw their careers ended by a new "Blackhawk Down" incident. Defense Department lawyers actually argued that Title 10 of the US Code actually prohibited the use of the SOF against shadowy terrorist targets, arguing that the power was reserved to the Central Intelligence Agency. The institutional mistrust of the special operators by the regular military establishment made some in the brass unwilling to trust them to take the fight to the enemy, fearing they would start something that would drag the whole service in. A few outsiders, some of whom were civilians, attempted to argue, especially after the embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole, that something had to be done, only to be faced down by professionals who shoved their campaign ribbons in their faces. Anyway, some argued, the Special Forces as constituted were too complex to use and intelligence was too vague to act upon. And so reliance continued to be placed on rag-tag emigre groups, diplomacy and the odd cruise missile strike to slow the snaking tentacles of Islamic terrorism.

Schultz's article is both less and more important than it seems. Less, because it refers to restrictions on one mode of combat -- the special operations forces -- who are by no means the only mode of combat. But it is more important than might appear at first glance, because the restrictions on the special operators illustrate the general restraints which still confine every aspect of the nation's capacity to defeat the enemy. Whether it is the need to mollify the United Nations, to avoid offending certain religious groups, to avoid economic shock, to win elections or the need to avoid giving a hostile media a story on which to hang a hook; a variety of showstoppers continue to form the labyrinth through which Americans must wend their way to victory -- if its achievement has not been declared unacceptably insensitive.