Harry Summers Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Strategy; Conversation with Harry G. Sumers; 3/6/96 by Harry Kreisler

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Post - Cold War World

In your writing you emphasize the importance of the people's support of the war. As we look at the world today, now that the Cold War is over, what are the implications for developing a US strategy for involvement abroad?

One of the things I found rather strange, almost an anomaly, is that if you look at military policy today in two dimensions, war-fighting and peacekeeping, President Clinton has been a rather strong president on the war-fighting side of the equation. In the areas of vital interest to the United States -- Western Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Middle East -- he has made very strong statements in support of those interests and, more to the point, has put his money where his mouth is.

When President Clinton took office, NATO was in free fall. He put a 100,000-man floor on our forces in NATO and guaranteed the US position in NATO. In the Far East he -- unlike President Carter, who was going to withdraw US forces from Korea -- addresses the Korean National Assembly and makes the point that Korea is a vital interest of the United States, which by definition is an interest we'll go to war over. And he also puts a 100,000-man floor on our forces in the western Pacific. In the Middle East he has twice committed forces forward to check Saddam Hussein's threats against Kuwait. So as a war fighter -- he doesn't get much credit for it -- as a war fighter he's a very strong president. And one of the reasons why the war-fighting side has been so well done is that the American people, by and large, support it unanimously. There is no great argument over US forces in Korea or in Europe or in the Middle East. And because the American people support it, the Congress supports it, and it's been adequately funded.

But the other side of the equation, the one President Clinton campaigned on, the one he said was going to be the cornerstone of his foreign military policy, peacekeeping, has been somewhat of a disaster. He said in his campaign, not in so many words, that the United States was going to be the world's peacekeeper, and that US forces, under UN control and under UN auspices, would be used to keep the peace in this uncertain post - Cold War world. And to that effect he floated Presidential Decision Directive 13, which sunk like a bomb. It was attacked tooth-and-nail by the American people, who said they didn't want their sons and daughters serving under foreigners. And it was attacked by the Congress, and it was abandoned.

Then President Clinton comes up with PDD 25, which is the current defense directive for military strategy and which, ironically, is a reiteration of the Weinberger Doctrine of 1984 almost word for word. So again he backs away from his campaign pledges. Not completely -- he still says that we're going to try to maintain peacekeeping forces, but it has not been very adequately sold to the American people, and they still don't support it. And as a result, the Congress doesn't support it and doesn't fund it. So on the war-fighting side, the national interests, we're in fairly good shape. On the peacekeeping side we're not, and there's some disarray in that area.

On the peacekeeping side, is it that President Clinton is muddled about what he wants to do? Or is it that he knows what he wants to do and he just hasn't educated the American people?

Secretary of Defense Perry made a speech in November 1994 which was the clearest exposition of US military policy I have seen. He started off saying, "Make no mistake about it, there are areas in this world we'll go to war for, and don't anybody forget that fact." And again, as the bottom-up review in the Defense Department said, Northeast Asia and Western Europe and the Middle East are vital interests.

Secretary Perry then said, "But there are other areas in the world that are important but not vital." Ironically, he used Bosnia as the case in point. He said, "To achieve our objectives in Bosnia would require the expenditure of so much blood and treasure as to be disproportionate to the national interests of the United States. Therefore, we're not going to get involved in Bosnia."

Of course, as Clausewitz tells us, military affairs depend upon changing circumstances in the course of events. And Secretary Perry said that each case has to be judged on its own merit, and justified on its own merit, and he mentioned Rwanda as a case where we went in and were able to offer some humanitarian assistance. When he talked about Haiti, interestingly, he didn't go into humanitarian concerns at all. He justified intervention in Haiti purely on vital interest to the United States and refugee flow. A very hardheaded analysis.

And then he turned to what had been the cornerstone of the Clinton defense policy, humanitarian assistance, and he boldly stated that that's not our business: "Humanitarian assistance is not the business of the Defense Department. There are other agencies in the government that are responsible for it. We can help, but it's not our business." And the clinching line was "We field an army, not a Salvation Army." That's pretty boldly stated. Of course, since then the situation changed to the point where we have become involved in Bosnia.

General Colin Powell, during the bottom-up review, stopped in the middle of his press conference and said, "I want to give you a little tutorial on what the armed forces of the United States are all about. The armed forces of the United States are all about fighting and winning the nation's wars. We can do other things, we can do humanitarian assistance, we can do disaster relief, and all the rest, but never at the expense of our primary mission." Of course, he got a great deal of flack about that from an awful lot of people who were in favor of peacekeeping operations. But this past January, General Shalikashvili, commending the success of the Haitian intervention force, said, "We need to remember that the primary mission of the armed forces of the United States is to fight and win on the battlefield, and we ought not to get in the habit of this sort of thing."

So I don't think the position of the uniformed military has changed on the primacy of war fighting. But in the case of Bosnia, the President decided we were going to go in, that the time for arguing was over and the time for execution was at hand. The military, as it went into this operation, did their damnedest to separate military and civil tasks so that we weren't caught up in the kind of nation-building that we were involved with in Vietnam, for example, and that we also ventured into in Somalia. It tried to get a clear-cut differentiation between military and civil tasks. But, as Shalikashvili said, "You can separate the military from the civil, but you can never separate the military from the political." As we see now, the political pressure to do something about war crimes -- the pressure from all the major newspapers and everyone else -- is forcing President Clinton to push the military across that line, into civil operations. These pressures -- because of the political nature of the armed forces -- become almost impossible to resist.

(Barnes) Isn't there some danger -- with the appointment of General McCaffrey, for instance, as drug czar -- that there's already been some use of American military force for drug interdiction? We know there are suggestions to use the US Army as a form of border patrol, a border barrier. When is this going to stop? Is there some danger that Major General McCaffrey's appointment will give greater credibility to that kind of change?

Several years ago there was an article by an Air Force colonel, Charles Dunlap, called "The Coming Military Coup of 2012." It was an award-winning essay, award-winning by the Joint Chiefs. Essentially his thrust was that in the intervening years the military had become more and more involved in civil tasks, separation had gone by the wayside, we had the military involved in law enforcement and drug enforcement and all the rest, to the point where the military thought that they could do it better than the civilians could. And in the end, there was a military coup overthrowing the government. It was a cautionary tale of the dangers of involving the military in civil tasks.

Samuel P. Huntington had said in his book that there's two ways of dealing with the military. Objectively, you keep them doing military tasks and keep them in their barracks, and that's the way to control them. But subjectively, if you allow them to take over civilian tasks, pretty soon they think that they are the civilians and you endanger the basis of the government. Now I don't see any great danger of a military coup in this country, but there is a danger of involving the military in nonmilitary tasks.

We see the example to our north. A Canadian colonel, Jack English, wrote a book on the Normandy campaign and pointed out that after World War I the Canadian military, in what he called a "corruption of power," in their desire be loved, got more and more involved in civilian tasks to the point where they lost their military skills. When they went on to the battlefield at Normandy, their soldiers were killed by the tens of thousands because they were militarily incompetent. In that same period, as Fehrenbach pointed out in his great book This Kind of War, the American military, in the inter-war years, retreated into itself, had become rather bitter and sort of under siege. But we had Eisenhower, for example, as a lieutenant colonel, being forced to read Clausewitz three times before he'd even talk about it. So that the American military concentrated on military skills, and that paid off at the beginning of World War II, when we could take these obscure majors and lieutenant colonels and make them commanders.

So there's a great danger now, and Barry McCaffrey is a case in point. McCaffrey was one of my students at the War College. An outstanding officer. If you give him a job, he'll do it. And that's part of the problem, ironic as it might sound: he's too good. And also I am afraid that he may become the latter-day Maxwell Taylor. John Kennedy brought in Max Taylor as his personal military advisor and sort of short-circuited the Joint Chiefs. And one of the damning comments on the Joint Chiefs in the Vietnam War is by a member, General Bruce Palmer, who said essentially that the civilians were running it and the JCS sat on their hands and said, "Screw it, let 'em run it." So even though they knew their strategy was faulty, even though they knew we had no policy worthy of the name, they said nothing and let the country go down the tube. Damning indictment of the Joint Chiefs during the Vietnam War period.

You're a military man, and you clearly have a very healthy respect for democracy. You say that our politicians are failing because they are comfortable in turning to the military to undertake tasks that are terribly difficult, but that, in fact, the military really isn't competent to handle them satisfactorily. And it was never intended to do so.

Exactly. There was an article in Parameters, which is the journal of the Army War College, by a young major who says that the task of the military is to do the dirty deeds for the country, that is, to do the drug enforcement, law enforcement, and so on. A very, very dangerous idea, it seems to me. He doesn't understand the fundamental nature of the American military. The military needs to be kept in its barracks, as Huntington said so very well, because of the fact that it can do the job. It has the organization -- that's one of the attractions to civilians -- it has the organization and the structure and the discipline to do a task that it's assigned to.

A strange case in point was this brouhaha over the young man who refused to wear the UN uniform in Bosnia. President Clinton, having run into a firestorm of criticism under PDD 13, when he said that we were going to put US forces under UN control, should have been very sensitive to this issue. When this young kid refused those orders, the president should have said to the military, "Transfer him to another unit. Let it die. Don't make an issue out of it." But instead, the administration said to the Army, "Handle it." Well, it handled it.

(Barnes) General court-martial.

Yes. And from the military point of view, there was no case. It was a legitimate order. The violation of a direct order is a particularly heinous military offense. And he was very quickly tried and found guilty. Now he's become an irritant to the president during the upcoming election because an awful lot of people believe the black helicopters are now flying over the West and the UN is about to take over the country. They are going to use this affair to beat the administration. So, the administration ought to have been sensitive to the fact that if you tell the military to do it, they're going to do it. And sometimes that's not the wise political course of action.

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