- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

President George W. Bush has come under attack from Democrats for allegedly being an "isolationist" because he rejected the Kyoto Protocol and wants to jettison the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These charges are false, of course. Neither of these decisions are signals that the U.S. is withdrawing from world affairs, only that it has a president who wants to engage the world on his own terms.
Mr. Bush may, however, be about to adopt a program that will warrant the isolationist label, because it will weaken America's ability to act beyond its borders. But, because it will be in accord with standard Democratic practice, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Bush takes the same heat from the left for it.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Aug. 8 that the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is studying "tradeoffs" and "manageable risks" that might result from major cuts in current conventional force levels. There has been speculation that the Army, which has already been reduced from 18 divisions at the time of the Gulf war to 10 today, would suffer a further cut to eight divisions. This would imply a parallel cut in Air Force tactical fighter wings.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has apparently abandoned the requirement set out in the 1997 QDR, that America possess sufficient forces to fight two major theater wars. "Maintaining this core capability is central to credibly deterring opportunism," argued that QDR. Given the global nature of U.S. commitments, this logic is hard to dispute.
The new standard will reportedly only require the military to fight and win one major regional war, while holding back the enemy in another conflict. This "win-hold" strategy was first proposed early in President Clinton's first term, but was rejected because it sent a message of weakness to potential aggressors. In Pentagon circles, it was more aptly termed the "win-lose" strategy.
The Gulf war was fought using the equivalent of 10 divisions (two Marine divisions, seven full Army divisions, and parts of two others). Today, with only three Marine and 10 Army divisions active, such a war would leave little to deter another adversary. New cuts would leave nothing at all.
Ground troops are always the prime targets for spending cuts. They fight the kind of messy wars that no one wants to think about, unless they want to win.
It was the elder President George Bush, with Dick Cheney as defense secretary and Colin Powell as Joint Chiefs chairman, who ordered many of the units that had just displayed their valor and skill in overrunning the Iraqi army to come home and be disbanded. The first round of post-Cold War cuts, ironically announced by Mr. Cheney the day after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, were deepened by President Clinton. That it had been Cold War troops shipped from Germany to Saudi Arabia which had won the Gulf war seemed lost on Washington at the time.
The U.S. has made this same mistake many times before. Each time, political leaders have come to regret it. In 1943, in the midst of global war, it was decided to limit the Army to 90 divisions. Resources were to be shifted to expanding the heavy bomber force. This decision was influenced by prewar theories about the irresistible nature of strategic bombing.
But the Nazis fought to the bitter end. Army divisions fighting their way into Germany found themselves spread thin and perilously under strength. Had the political decision been made to beat the Soviets to Berlin or Prague, the Army might not have been up to the task.
After World War II, it seemed the atomic bomb had made large-scale ground wars obsolete. Tokyo had been forced to surrender without an invasion and surely no country could survive such an attack in the future.
This left America unprepared for the Korean War. The U.S. Army had only 10 divisions in 1950. A heavy price was paid as U.S. forces were pushed south of Seoul, not once, but twice, despite aerial supremacy. The war ended in a dangerous stalemate.
After the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration downplayed conventional warfare in favor of "massive retaliation" by nuclear weapons and airpower. But the next war was Vietnam. The air campaign against North Vietnam failed to break the enemy's will. While Washington sent bombers against the North, Hanoi sent an army against the South. Only ground troops could pull the flag down from the opposing capital and hoist their own in its place.
In the aftermath of Vietnam, Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter returned to the Eisenhower strategy of downplaying "ground wars in Asia" — or anywhere else. This led to the "hollow military" of the late 1970s. President Reagan then rebuilt the Army to 18 active divisions, the same number Harry Truman had proposed in 1952.
The Reagan expansion provided the means to win the Gulf war. Air and naval strikes could not have liberated Kuwait, any more than continued bombing raids have overthrown Saddam Hussein in the decade since.
Even on those rare occasions when airpower has coerced an enemy into accepting terms, as in Kosovo, ground troops have been needed to keep the peace. Only "boots on the ground" can carry out real geopolitical change.
By reducing America's ability to act on this most fundamental level, Mr. Bush will find "isolationism" the only policy he has the means to carry out.

William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for National Security Studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation.


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