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Defending the 21st Century

Published in National Journal

“Against All Terrors” is one man’s vision for reshaping America’s way of defending its interests. Philip Gold, a Discovery Institute defense analyst, has written a book for the layperson who might not normally read a book about terrorism or defense issues. And while this approach occasionally causes the book to be overly broad, Gold succeeds in bringing a basic understanding of American defense issues to the average reader.

Gold divides his treatise into four chapters that describe how our defense capabilities have evolved over the last century and where we should go from here. He begins by addressing what he refers to as “The Wars of the Ways,” in which he searches for a new paradigm to fit “the new world reality” that followed the September terrorist attacks.

Gold believes that the world is dividing into two opposing civilizations: “those who embrace the twenty-first century, its freedoms and potentials, against those who want out or who can’t get in.” This will lead to an ever-greater bifurcation of the world’s wealth, and thus to backlashes of frustration from the world’s poor. According to Gold’s paradigm, “it should be the American mission to serve as a defender… of the twenty-first century, on behalf of a world that, more often than not, will despise and condemn us for it. It is a matter of survival, of self interest… and of moral obligation.”

We won’t be the only defenders, of course, but Gold argues that the United States is the only country with the power — military and otherwise — to lead the mission. If “defending the 21st century” seems like too vague a goal, he clarifies that American forces should be committed only when there are problems that other, lesser organizations can’t handle, when it can be done with “clear and decisive intent,” and when there is support from a U.S. citizenry that understands the stakes involved and “how the military works.”

That’s a tall order. Assuming that those criteria can be met, however, we should then get out as quickly as possible and let other countries or organizations take over by committing their own forces. In short, we should lead and others should follow and clean up — in many ways, the arrangement that has been proposed for Afghanistan. It’s not bad work if you can get it, but whether it will fly with our allies is another question.

His vision established, Gold then provides a brief history of 20th century military tactics, with an emphasis on the recent past. He repeatedly refers to the last decade as “the wasted 90’s,” and lays most of the blame for the weakening of the Pentagon’s capabilities and morale at the feet of then-President Bill Clinton and “Clinton’s Pentagon.” Gold does allow that Clinton was not entirely to blame, noting that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had spent most of the 90s denying that the military had any serious problems, and that after their official positions shifted the Clinton administration asked for substantial and steady increases in defense spending. The author’s disdain for this era comes through loud and clear, however.

The blame game aside, serious defense problems undoubtedly exist (see Michael E. O’Hanlon’s “Defense Policy Choices” for a detailed listing), and Gold lays out what he believes must be done to reform them. He stamps his approval on the Quadrennial Defense Review released by Donald Rumsfeld on Oct. 1, 2001, which re-emphasized homeland defense as the core of American defense strategy, recommended a capabilities-based rather than threat-based approach to defense planning, suggested a shift to smaller, more specialized forces that are also more easily deployed, and recommended changes that would reduce inter-service rivalry.

The QDR also suggested that the military take a more aggressive approach to conflict, recommending swift action that would result in complete and decisive defeat of the enemy rather than withdrawing after military objectives were met — the goal, of course, being to avoid the sort of problems we face today in Iraq and Somalia where an enemy was not completely vanquished. Gold strongly endorses this overall vision.

More specifically, Gold makes recommendations for each branch of the military. This is the most interesting part of the book, particularly to those who are unfamiliar with the history of the individual branches and the fierce rivalries that exist among them for financial resources and prestige. Gold includes enough detail and specific examples to keep the reader interested and informed, and he successfully conveys a solid understanding of why military reform is so difficult to achieve.

In the end, Gold doesn’t recommend attempting greater unification of the existing forces. Instead, he suggests a reclassification of needs into a Space Force, a Peace Force, Warriors and a Guard to meet the very specific demands of the new world reality “Against All Terrors” envisions. Although the titles sound a little goofy, the ideas are well-grounded and provide good food for thought. Gold’s vision extends beyond the military here, and it encompasses an active and informed citizenry that is willing and able to be involved in its own defense through various venues. In a way, the people become another branch of service.

Again, this book is one man’s vision — but it’s an interesting vision. Gold’s contempt for anything related to the Clinton administration will irritate some readers while drawing cheers from others, but his excellent explanation of the military and its history provides a substantive platform from which to expound on his outline for the future.