Text size

This time, there's no Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. The most notable thing about the first days of the American campaign in Afghanistan is the complete absence from the public eye of the commander of the operation. The lesson of 1991 was learned well. At that time, in the Gulf War, center stage was given to the arena commander, the head of the U.S. Army's Central Command, the human bear, General Norman Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf, one of the lesser lights of the senior officer corps of the American ground forces, got the opportunity of a lifetime - and blew it in a sea of narrow mindedness.

Schwarzkopf's incomprehension of policy sensitivities reached a peak in the public disdain he displayed for the launching of Scud missiles at Israel by the Iraqis. The general likened them to a thunderstorm in Virginia - true enough in terms of the damage done to life and property, but a silly statement given the danger to the fragile coalition against Iraq that was put together with great toil.

This time, the Pentagon is not taking the chance of making an unknown, inexperienced actor the star of a world premiere. Perhaps they might have given the opportunity to General Anthony Zinni, from the Marine Corps, who had experience in the political and personal nuances of the region's peoples and leaders and was privy to the caprices of rulers from Riyadh to Islamabad. But Zinni retired from Central Command in the summer of 2000. Two weeks ago, CBS News reported he would be joining the State Department as the adviser of former general and current Secretary of State Colin Powell (apparently because of his close ties with the ruler of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf).

Zinni's successor, General Tommy Franks, from the ground forces, is still an untested greenhorn. The first appearance of Central Command in the war news came in the form of a report of the payment of $150 a month, exempt from federal tax, to soldiers in the combat zone and sailors off the coast of Pakistan - hundreds of kilometers from their destinations.

In his own version of President Roosevelt's fireside chats, President Bush is being aided by fatherside chats - a private lesson in the conclusions the supreme commander of the 1991 war has drawn. In that conflict, Schwarzkopf's broadcasts from Saudi Arabia were supplemented by briefings given by operations and intelligence officers at the Pentagon, generals and admirals who held important staff positions - but not at the highest level.

The Dick (Cheney) and Colin (Powell) show waited in the wings until the major turning points. Similarly, in the operations of the United States and NATO in the Balkans during recent years, the American military usually had the working levels meet with the press. In the Kosovo war, the civilian and military leadership in the Pentagon got into a flap with the arena commander, General Wesley Clark, so much so, indeed, that his retirement was expedited.

Now they don't want Schwarzkopf; they don't want Clark; they don't want troubles. They pushed aside the arena commanders, benched the heads of the branches, got rid of the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton, who drove his superiors crazy. They sent the two head honchos - Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard (Dick) Myers - onto the playing field. The Don and Dick show is the only crumb that's so far been tossed to the news-hungry public and the information-starved media - though they don't want too much information, as that could endanger the fighting forces.

Rumsfeld doesn't share all his air time with Myers. During this emergency period, the secretary of defense starts his day at dawn. At 6 a.m. he probably gets intelligence and operation updates from the night missions and at 6:30 a.m. he gets made up, because at 7 a.m. he's already giving an interview, at one and the same time, to three or four television networks - though only to one of them live, of course, with the others using serial recordings from the preceding minutes.

The spokesmen of the administration, sanctifiers of the economy and the right to earn a living, constantly reiterate that in the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden hit "Americans where they work" and that he is still plotting to kill "American taxpayers." No taxpayer who sips a cup of coffee and downs a bowl of cereal as he watches the morning news on television before setting off for work, can escape Rumsfeld. This is a crucial support group, whose influence in Congress will get him funding and strengthen him in the internal battles against the conservative officer corps.

Until a month ago, the top ranks of the American armed forces waged a struggle against Rumsfeld as they fought to thwart his initiative for a change of priorities in the military build-up plan. It was a frustrating clash - Shelton was due to retire on September 30 and behaved as though he had nothing to lose - and the armed forces conveyed a sense of despair at the new team of Rumsfeld and his superior, President Bush.

After years of showing open contempt for President Bill Clinton and his last defense secretary, William Cohen (they liked and esteemed his predecessor, William Perry), the generals looked forward to a far more favorable attitude toward defense needs and to closing the widening gap - tens of billions of dollars a year - between generous strategy and parsimonious resources. But they were disappointed; the ranks were closed only in the atmosphere of the September 11 defeat and the war that has followed it.

Air time

The prophets of air superiority in the last century did not imagine such a horrific realization of their predictions - America's proud cities were attacked not by Soviet bombers but by hijacked American passenger planes. After World War II, with Pearl Harbor, and then Korea - with the surprise invasion by the north against the south, where a lax American garrison was stationed - the Pentagon vowed that the next war would be conducted differently. They would "win in the first battle" to be rid of the heritage, costly in casualties and time, of losing the opening round and then slowly recovering until the transition to counterattack and victory. Along came bin Laden and smote them in the first battle again; the war began with a negative American casualty balance of 6,000.

The entire chain of command has an aerial background of some sort. Bush got his wings, though not much more, as a pilot in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War. Rumsfeld was a fighter pilot in the Navy not long before the end of the Korean War. Myers is the first representative of the Air Force to chair the Joint Chiefs for 20 years, and the first since Congress enhanced the chairman's powers and made him, in practice, the most important American military figure. In the campaign that has been waged so far from the air, from ground bases (in the United States proper) and from floating bases (in the form of aircraft carriers), that is more than symbolic significance.

Conceptual iceberg

Like its sisters everywhere, including Israel, the American military is impervious to changes and innovations. Zinni, the former commander of the current battle arena, used to say that the land army to this day mourns the passing of the cavalry. In his Marines mother unit, he added, they are ready to murder anyone who dares commit the heresy of contemplating the updating of the sacred composition of the riflemen's squad of 13 fighters.

In light of this, Rumsfeld's public explanation to the effect that bin Laden's training camps are the equivalent of the Marines base at Quantico is even more puzzling. After all, the whole difference between the two sides lies in the ability of a small, flexible and clandestine underground group to get along even without basic training at a place like Bahad 4 (an Israeli instruction base), an officers course at Bahad 1 and training for routine security at Central Command's Lachish base.

And this is only the tip of the conceptual iceberg. To shake up American military conservatism to the core, wars are needed, and it quickly turns out they aren't enough either. True revolutions in this sphere are always fomented from the top, from the civilian level. A professional revolution is possible from below, from the young officers, who are first punished for their chutzpah. But an organizational revolution encompassing all the corps occurs only when it is actively espoused by an elected level - a cabinet minister - who is ready to plant fewer saplings in order to upgrade the new crop.

It's the same in Israel, as was shown by the opposition to the establishment of the Ground Corps Command, which was blatantly necessary after the Yom Kippur War. The defense minister at the time, Ezer Weizman, appointed Major General Israel Tal to formulate a plan and was about to accept it, but was frightened at the opposition of the chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, and of Major General Yanosh Ben-Gal.

It was only the appointment of a defense minister with a civilian background, Moshe Arens, who insisted on establishing the new command (now in a watered-down version as the Field Corps Command) that the designated chief of staff, Moshe Levy, gave in - he was against the idea too, but not so much as to give up his appointment. Eighteen years later, we have the FCC's flamboyant name of the Land Arm Command for Force Building, but only recently has it been accorded enlarged powers. The most dramatic innovation, from the point of view of the heads of the territorial commands, is that not they but the chief of the LACFB will henceforth appoint the commanders of the regular brigades, such as the Paratroops and Golani.

There is still no receptiveness in Israel to the appointment of an air force general as chief of staff, the commander-in-chief of a war that could be an aerial affair here too. To prepare the ground, as it were, the air force is updating its approach to combat management and to producing new commanders, understanding the best have not gone only to be pilots and not only to combat units. In the meantime, in the day-to-day fighting in the territories, the working relations between the air force and the Shin Bet security service have become much closer. Therein lies the advantage of the small Israeli system over the vast American one. There, in a similar situation of preventing terrorist attacks, including helicopter-borne assassinations, the FBI would have long ago demanded an air force of its own.

End of isolationism

Veteran land and sea officers in America were suspicious of the advent of the airplane and, years later, of the appearance of the intercontinental missile and the nuclear submarine. When the U.S. Air Force became an autonomous entity, after the Second World War, the land arm was compelled to find an enhanced mission for the skinny birds that remained in its hands - the helicopters - and so developed a new combat doctrine. The various corps, with the help of their supporters in Congress, scuttled every civilian effort to weave the separate threads into one effective fabric. The slogan of the original 13 colonies that united to rebel against the British, "E pluribis unum" (Out of many, one) didn't make it past the gates of the military's bases.

It was only after America's halting operations in the war against Spain for Cuba in 1898 that the secretary of war (who was responsible for the land arm, though not for the navy) was permitted to update the structure of the army. It had been stuck with General Sherman as he burned and rode roughshod over everything in his path during the Civil War, and with General Custer, who was outflanked in a battle against Indians.

Not until the first failures of World War II - more than two years after battle was joined in Europe and five months after the Russians were brought into the conflict - were the barriers between the different forces toppled and a single department of defense established. Then, in 1947, the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Atomic Energy Commission were set up, but the civilian effort to subdue the generals and admirals met with little success.

Additional decades were needed to erode the status of the undersecretaries who were in charge of the military branches. It was only 15 years ago that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff became, instead of the head of a panel that sought compromises amenable to all its members, a military adviser to the president and the secretary whose advice was actually listened to.

At the same time, the arena commanders, who are accountable to the secretary and not to the Joint Chiefs, were strengthened, and a kind of fifth branch, for the special forces, was established. There were also the debacles in Vietnam (according to Zinni, the cost-efficiency mania of the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, led to obsessive economizing on the troops' uniforms, which were made without buttons and without enough pockets.) In Iran, there was the abortive attempt by President Carter to free the American hostages there. The conclusion is clear - a great power cannot make do with grab-bag tactics. It has to use a steamroller and not a pinprick, and it has to carry out a purposeful concentration of effort.

Inside the United States, the change - the appointment of Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge as director of the newly created Homeland Security Office, with the status of a cabinet secretary, and in practice as the internal counterpart of the adviser on national security, Condoleezza Rice - had to wait for the great disaster last month.

The reasons for this included the constitutional heritage of separation of powers, legal limitations on coordination between different agencies, and a general feeling of complacency. One small, secret organization, focused on its terror mission, succeeded in unraveling the stitches between the bodies responsible for security, immigration, customs and civilian flights, which are subordinate to different offices - defense, the attorney general, treasury, transportation.

Fortress America was breached, in contrast to the illusions of the conservatives - among them pilots like Charles Lindbergh, who should have known that there are no walls in the air - whose hope was to stay clear of foreign conflicts.

This is the end of isolationism as a political idea. It's immaterial whether the Americans want to continue to be involved in the world or not - the oceans and the borders and the relations with neighbors no longer accord them the same almost perfect defense (not against missiles) to which they had grown accustomed. Unilateral separation is dead; if Mohammed comes to the city, the city has to pursue Mohammed.

On the eve of the attacks on New York and Washington, Rumsfeld was about to complete his perusal of the draft of the quadrennial defense survey. The report is supposed to enable the new administration to examine the basic premises of its predecessor and set in motion a different process of adapting military operations to political goals. Those goals, according to Rumsfeld, are to reassure allies and friends, to deter future military competitors, to counter threats to American interests and to defeat aggression should deterrence fail.

The secretary and the military concurred that it was essential to deploy for a great enemy (China), for medium-scale enemies (Iran, Iraq, North Korea), for an errant missile and for terrorism. Bin Laden, who didn't read the draft of the report, forced them to reverse the order and place the battle against him and the defense of the homeland at the top of the list - also in order to achieve the other declared goals. The report finally appeared on September 30, Shelton's final day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and he added to the document a partially qualified rejoinder of his own.

The report confers on Asia the status of the world's most important continent, through American gun sights. Asia views an American military presence as a guarantee that commitments will be carried out. Europe, like Latin America, is in a process of forgoing parts of that presence. The Persian Gulf (or "Arab" Gulf, as the Pentagon calls it) wants protection without a presence. There is less than an American brigade in Kuwait, including a company of Apache attack helicopters.

Ground and maritime depots contain equipment for three brigades (this will be upgraded to four in two years), whose troops will be flown in by transport aircraft, if there are enough planes, in an emergency. Of all the forces of Central Command, only the Fifth Fleet, which secures the Strait of Hormuz (through which four-tenths of the world's oil passes), was permitted to establish its headquarters in the region.

The upshot is that until the ground forces organize in the area, the Don and Dick war is proceeding lethargically, aiming to destroy the Taliban and bin Laden infrastructure and to minimize the risks to the helicopter-borne special forces as they conduct their hot pursuits. One serious accident - the death of a large number of Afghan children or the midair collision of a plane crammed with paratroopers and the plane refueling it - could take the wind out of the battle spirit and restore the gloom and doom of a month ago.

The place of Bush, Rumsfeld and Myers in American history hangs in the balance; they hope it's not the balance of bin Laden and that he will not die of ripe old age.