James Fallows Interview (2005): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Bush Administration: Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly, March 28, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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You're a person who knows quite a bit about technology. You've written quite a bit, you know quite a bit also about the Defense Department, you wrote one of your first books on national defense. Let's talk a little about the implications of technology for foreign policy, and especially as it relates to our military capabilities on the one hand, but also the capabilities that become available to the other side, the terrorists.

Yes. Let's talk first about our military, then we can talk about terrorists for a moment.

It's interesting that March -- let's set a date; say, April 3rd or 4th of 2003 -- marked, in a sense, a watershed in how Americans talked about technology in the military. Up until that point, for the previous decade or more, the idea had been this revolution in military affairs. The precision bombing the U.S. had, these stand-off weapons, the fact that you could fly B-2 bombers from Missouri and have them drop bombs in Baghdad -- it seemed as if there'd be no challenge to the U.S. because nobody could match this precision, and the wars could be clean, surgical and quick with basically no casualties on our side.

After April 3rd or 4th, when Baghdad fell and suddenly it didn't work so great anymore, and it was [about] people with grenades and bombs hidden in the carcasses of dead dogs, and things like that, our precision weapons weren't that significant. It became the old military techniques of surprise and guile, and looking for your enemy's weakness. So you hear much, much less of this technological triumphalism in the military and more discussion of what, in the long run, are the balance of strengths and weaknesses that the U.S. has [against] its enemies.

To shift to the terrorists for a moment, the technological projection of ability that the U.S. has also exposes us in countless ways, from the cyber infrastructure -- bringing things down that way -- the electric grid, any kind of power supply, the openness of our society. People have a much more sober view after the fall of Baghdad than they did before of how technology makes us more powerful in some ways but more vulnerable in countless other ways, too, towards a very low-tech but cunning enemy.

With regard to technology's impact on the military, we have a history of trying to find a quick fix with technology as we confront different adversaries, and one sense is that a soldier with a computer on the battlefield can target a bomb that's coming from a huge plane coming -- God only knows where it's coming from, on the one hand. But on the other hand, when we are successful in particular cases, other [factors have played a role]. So, although we were doing this in Afghanistan, there were other things going on. We had the support of the Northern Alliance, unloading trunks full of dollar bills to pay these people off. So there is a complex milieu in which the virtues of technology are misunderstood.

Yes. Let me give you the anecdote which always makes this dramatic to me. The U.S. puts lots of emphasis on having the best fighter planes in the world, and we have all these refined debates: is the F-22 necessary or not, or is the F-15 still okay, or is the joint strike fighter the right way to do it? The fact is, nobody will fight us in air-to-air battles anymore. I think the last air-to-air battle a U.S. plane was in was maybe over Libya about fifteen years ago; it's been a very long period of time. People will simply not engage the U.S. Air Force because they will lose.

That doesn't mean they bow to American will in all forms. It means they find some other way of engaging U.S. power. More generally, whenever there is a conventional war to fight, like that three-week war for Iraq, the U.S. will win. But that means more and more adversaries will not engage us conventionally. They'll look for all the other ways where the strengths we have don't apply, and that's basically the problem the U.S. has now.

Is Rumsfeld doing a good job in this regard, in terms of bringing this new technology and changing the military so it can deal with these different kinds of situations, or is he failing there also?

I have a Jekyll-and-Hyde view of Rumsfeld's tenure at the Pentagon. On the one hand, before September 11 and after to a degree too, he was pushing very hard for what he viewed as the right kind of evolution of military machinery, military doctrine, of not having heavy, ponderous forces, of canceling some weapons that seemed to be old-fashioned and out of date. On the other hand, he seemed to be so carried away by that theory that he let it lead to some catastrophic errors in the management of the Iraq war, in my view. I think one reason the occupation in Iraq has been so difficult is that Rumsfeld was insistent by doctrine on having a very small force to invade. That was enough to beat Saddam Hussein; it was not enough to occupy the country. I think he will be seen, in a way, like Robert McNamara, as somebody whose theory got in the way of doing a practical good job. His theory was right in many ways but wrong for the execution of this war.

The military understood this very early on because they had acquired, and the U.S. government had acquired, a body of experience on how you stabilize a post-conflict operation.

Yes, the most prescient document before the war, for after the war, was something put together by the Army War College in the fall of 2002. It was an elegant document; it had three parts. First was going through everything we've learned from past occupations. It didn't talk about Southern Reconstruction after the Civil War, but it was everything from the Philippines onward. Second was everything we could figure out about Iraq and what would be special there. And third was a big grid of what you would have to worry about on day one, and on week one, and on month one.

It stood up very well, and part of its argument was that you needed many, many, many more people to occupy the country than you did to conquer it. Conquering it would be easy, occupying it would be hard. So, you could argue that that was part of the old mentality of the army of throwing men at a problem, but in hindsight that was right and Rumsfeld was wrong to say, no, you can't have those people.

I'm curious -- and you touched on this earlier: what has the war done to the military?

The good side of what this war has done for the U.S. military is to give it combat experience. The next time the U.S. needs to run a counterinsurgency campaign, it will do a hell of a job of it, because you have especially junior officers having all these self-educating, self-informing networks. So, it is battle tested now in a way it had not been before. Simultaneously, it is way over-strained and over-extended. The news reports about not meeting the re-enlistment targets, especially for the reserves and National Guard, are certainly true. It's using up its machinery, it's using up its weaponry, and it is embittered at its civilian leadership. There is a clear sense, combined with patriotism, bravery, pride in the mission, of having been put in a quasi-Vietnam situation, not like Vietnam obviously in the scale, but where the professional military judgment was overruled by civilian theories. I think that has been embittering to much of the military.

Isn't the long-term consequence here that the credibility of the military component of our power has been called into question?

Yes, because if you recall back to, say, pre the invasion of Iraq, America's military power seemed to be literally limitless. Anything we wanted to do, we could do. Now it's clear that yes, we can take over Iraq but not in some cakewalk fashion and not with anything left over. If we're thinking about Iran, there're no troops left over to go to Iran or North Korea, or elsewhere. The limits of American power are now evident in the way they were not evident before the power was used.

Coming back to this question again, do you think that now the people in the Bush administration get that reality?

It would seem there are several ways in which without ever admitting it, the Bush administration is acting as if it has learned some things. For example, in dealing both with Iran and North Korea there's been a sense all the way along that we need to do this in an allied way. The Europeans are not dead-weight and whiners but people we need to deal with, and the same with the Chinese in coming to North Korea. Similarly there's been much greater caution in talking about military options for Iran and North Korea than there was with Iraq, because of an awareness of what you would do it with, or there's not an army left over. There is even some public discussion of what's unknowable in the intelligence about Iran and North Korea, based on the experience of Iraq WMD intelligence.

So, there is some learning?

Yes, not admitted learning, but demonstrated learning.

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