Tuesday, August 05, 2003


Superb opinion piece that looks at the US Forces' technical combat ability, already unsurpassed in the the world, and notes that smart bombs do little to help our forces in their current mission - rebuiding a nation.
I agree that building a new future in the Arab world is a worthy challenge for a great power, assuming it's done with the Arabs' help rather than being imposed on them. But I am increasingly worried that this administration's military version of "transformation" will subvert its political goal.

Here's the problem: The Pentagon's version of "transformation" is all about using technology to enhance the military's standoff power -- the precision-guided bombs and unmanned robots that allow America to dominate a battlefield without risking high U.S. casualties. But political transformation requires the opposite -- an intimate "stand-in" connection with the culture and people you propose to transform.

This conundrum has been evident in Iraq: U.S. military forces raced north to Baghdad, overwhelming any opposition in their path. The road from Kuwait to Baghdad provided images of the new precision and lethality of American weapons: Iraqi tanks smoldered in ruins even as the surrounding sand revetments looked almost untouched. I saw one tank that had tried to hide under a bridge but was destroyed by a missile smart enough to nail the tank but leave the bridge intact.

The Iraqis never saw what was coming at them militarily. That helped America win the war quickly and decisively. But this same disconnect -- the separation of U.S. power from the society that the administration hopes to reconstruct -- is a big part of what has been going wrong in postwar Iraq.

America remains too much of a standoff power in the new Iraq. The U.S. military lacks the language skills, the cultural familiarity, the network of political connections to make the necessary, intimate connection with that country. It needs to "stand in" now, but it doesn't have the tools to do so securely. Hunkered down against a small but pesky Iraqi resistance, it looks like an occupying army more than a transforming (or "liberating") one.

This imbalance between America's military force and its strategic needs is only likely to grow worse unless the Bush administration moves to redress it. The Pentagon is already working on the next generation of military "transformation," and from what I heard at a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conference last week, the future will only add to America's standoff military power.

The world's only superpower is contemplating new technologies that could come out of the latest "Terminator" movie. On this future battlefield, "super-empowered" U.S. war-fighters will have body-machine interfaces that will make them all but invulnerable. They will be able to fire weapons just by thinking "fire"; they will be impervious to heat, hunger, thirst or fatigue. Remote sensors will constantly feed target data to aircraft that can fire precision weapons from a safe distance. When things get too dangerous even for the super-empowered, the Pentagon can send in smart robots and swarms of unmanned predator planes...

I hope DARPA keeps experimenting with future weapons technologies, and I applaud Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's agenda for transformation of a sometimes hidebound military. But the Bush administration needs to embrace the softer side of power, too. An America that can actually transform the Middle East will need more Arabic speakers, social scientists who understand the Islamic world, development economists, human rights activists.

Above all, a United States that's serious about transforming the Arab world will need people who care passionately about the region and its people. This is not a standoff project. Real transformation will require connection, not distance.

Read the whole thing here.

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