Transatlantic Briefing No. 3-06

Last week the Pentagon released the latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). In it, the idea of the ‘Long War’ was introduced. Essentially, the Defense Department sees the next couple decades preoccupied by the Long War, which is currently known as the War on Terror. This strategy has various implications for the US and its allies. Of particular concern to those who follow transatlantic relations is what it means for continued security co-operation. The long-term effects of the QDR remain to be seen; the short-term effect is that it will make Europeans even wearier of the US role in the world.


Europeans are clearly worried about the idea of the War on Terror. Across various European capitals, the idea that terrorism merits a war is found to be a bit half-baked. Terrorism is a crime – to be dealt with robustly, but via courts and with police. The use of military force to wage a war against terrorism is widely interpreted as over-zealous and perhaps eventually self-defeating. The latest illustration of this was the Dutch reluctance to engage in southern Afghanistan with the expanding NATO mission. Dutch law-makers were concerned about the nature of the mission. As two Dutch parliamentarians asked, ‘Is this, in fact, not simply a terrorism-fighting mission disguised as a reconstruction effort and thus limited in its capability to act? How can we avoid this “reconstruction mission” from becoming embroiled in Enduring Freedom’s combat mission and how could locals spot the difference?’ The Dutch concerns are legitimate on a number of levels. President Bush’s open desire to merge the two missions bolsters the reasons for Europeans to worry. On the one level, the Europeans do not want their stabilization and reconstruction mission to suffer because it is confused with a combat mission, but the inverse logic is that they also do not want to take on the anti-terrorist combat operations. The concerns were echoed in Britain with Parliament finding the British deployment to support the ISAF mission confused and unclear. Perhaps it is a bit nonsensical for the Dutch and others in Europe to want to engage in stabilization and reconstruction efforts without ensuring security first, but that is not the issue here. The issue is that for Europe the idea of a long war centred on terrorism is an anathema.


What this means is that although there is a bettering of relations between Washington and a number of allies in recent months, the US long-term plan does nothing to facilitate this trend. The US clearly intends to orientate its military forces in a manner that facilitates interventions. This is reflected in the fact that US Special Forces will be increased to nearly half the size of the total British Army. The $513 billion budget will also go to support the development of drones for targeted assassinations and a new long-range bomber force. Although the rhetoric about pre-emptive war may have died down, a reorientation of forces in this manner, coupled with the development of such technologies, indicates that pre-emptive actions will remain possible and, indeed, will probably be a mainstay of US strategy in the Long War. This does not mean that the US will intervene in Iraq-style occupations reminiscent of post-Second World War strategies in Germany and Japan. This approach is rather discredited given the poor post-war planning with regard to Iraq and the quagmire the Coalition finds itself in today. Pre-emptive strikes and actions of a lesser accord cannot be ruled out, though. If one monitors the US press, evidence is easy to come by that this is possible. Republican Senator John McCain has talked repeatedly about the military option vis-à-vis Iran, as did Democratic Senator Joe Biden, who said that although a strike might force up oil prices, the US public needs to understand it may be asked to carry hardships in such a war. The rhetoric on both sides of the aisle supports the continued restructuring of the US military and its ability to pursue the national interest, with military force and pre-emptively if need be.


It is important, however, that one not go overboard. The QDR emphasizes at multiple points the fact that the Long War is a war that will not be fought by military means alone. This lends hope to the contingent wishes for the US to turn away from bellicose strategies of spreading democracy around the world via the use for force. The QDR does recognize that security can only be provided via a number of approaches working together. Multilateral efforts are also discussed at length. In the short run the QDR offers little new. The document inherits much from previous generations. The process of force transformation long transcends the idea of the Long War. While ensconced in the QDR, it remains to be seen what the take on the Long War will be in the next National Security Strategy. Furthermore, although the Pentagon has outlined this strategy and the White House will endorse it, the American people are a crucial factor that cannot be ignored. The population at large is very dissatisfied with the Administration. Everything from the response to Hurricane Katrina to the Abramhoff scandal has tired them. Less than 50 per cent of the electorate think the war in Iraq was a good idea. With mid-term elections on the horizon and the six-year itch a major possibility, evaluating the effects of the QDR on the transatlantic relationship at this point in time is tricky. The QDR outlines a plan; it remains to be seen to what extent the plan will be implemented. Europe would do best to wait and see how the chips fall in the US, while at the same time quietly and skilfully articulating alternative strategies to combat terrorism.


Mike Williams
Head, Transatlantic Programme
International Security Studies Department


The views and comments offered here do not necessarily reflect those of the Royal United Services Institute.




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