Rational Security

Three Wars on Terror

Ronald Reagan and the battle for Obama's strategic soul.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of Barack Obama’s earliest acts as president was to discard the phrase "war on terror," yet he has been waging just such a campaign these past four years — with a skillful mix of subtlety and ferocity. Several major al Qaeda plots have been thwarted by aggressive, innovative intelligence programs, often conducted in a deeply networked fashion with our allies. In addition to the killing of Osama bin Laden, many other operatives in the late terrorist capo’s organization have found themselves on the receiving end of commando raids or Hellfire missiles, from Waziristan to Yemen — and beyond. Those not yet in the crosshairs have gone to ground, or dare to move about only sparingly, furtively.

Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy has extended to other malefactors as well, from madmen like Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army to the Libyan state terrorist, Moammar Qaddafi. Kony is being hunted by local African forces of order, which are themselves being assisted by about a hundred American special operators. Qaddafi was taken down when Obama engineered and enabled a NATO air campaign that began by preventing a slaughter of innocents in Benghazi, then went on to effect regime change in Tripoli — in a far less costly manner than was undertaken in Iraq by George W. Bush.

Indeed, the difference in the approaches taken by our two most recent presidents really speaks to there being two different wars on terror. Bush chose to attack other nations in his attempt to create a less permissive international environment for terrorist networks. Obama has decided to take the more direct approach: going straight after the networks.

Bush’s strategy proved exceptionally costly and highly problematic in Iraq, and even his initial success in "going small" in Afghanistan was all too soon overtaken by a stalemate-inducing impulse to send large numbers of troops there. Obama’s concept of operations, on the other hand, has been working well, and will never break the bank or exhaust our military — especially in the wake of his realizing, and reversing, the folly of surging more troops into Afghanistan, as senior military leaders persuaded him to do early in his presidency.

It is tempting, on the eve of the 11th anniversary of 9/11, to believe that the problem posed by terrorist networks is at last well on its way to being solved — and this may be the case. But this is a moment to remember, in a cautionary way, that there was an earlier war on terror, crafted by Ronald Reagan and his close advisers in the mid-1980s, that began subtly and skillfully, too — yet which soon foundered.

In the weeks and months after the October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 242 Americans, Reagan and his team became deeply concerned about the terrorism problem. But it was the abduction and torture of the CIA’s Beirut station chief, William Buckley, in March 1984 that truly brought matters to a head. Secretary of State George Shultz called a Saturday meeting of terrorism experts, led by Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, and the team brainstormed until a strategy emerged, one that called for something that strongly resembles the kind of campaign that Obama is now pursuing. Rather, the resemblance is in reverse, as Reagan’s plan came first.

Soon after that weekend conclave of experts, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 138 — most of which is still highly classified. Christopher Martin’s declassified history of political and military policy during this period points out that the directive called for "secret FBI and CIA paramilitary squads and use of existing Pentagon military units — such as Green Berets and the Navy SEALs — for conducting what amounted to guerrilla war against guerrillas…a de facto declaration of war."

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.

Barack Obama has, as noted above, done much better by hewing close to the concept that Reagan initially embraced. But, as was the case with Reagan, there is now a similar battle going on for Obama’s strategic soul. For all the nimble, networked operations he has overseen, Obama did allow senior military advisers to talk him into surging large numbers of conventional forces into Afghanistan — at great cost and, at best, with mixed results. He also acceded to a status-of-forces agreement made by his predecessor, allowing senior political advisers to talk him into living with the consequences of a complete withdrawal from Iraq — where keeping even a slight residual force of special operators would have done wonders in deterring the resurgence of violence that now threatens to undo all the progress of the past decade.

In the battle for Reagan’s strategic soul, the conventional thinkers won out because they convinced him that there was far too much of the "dark side" in the Shultz-inspired plan. In the battle for Barack Obama’s strategic soul, the "overwhelming force" approach has not yet carried the day — and with luck it won’t. Here’s hoping that Mephisto wins this one.

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