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American Dreams

Intellectual Roots of Neo-conservative Thinking

By Khurram Husain (*)


They were thoughtful men, intelligent and attentive to detail. They eschewed the blare and chaos of politics, preferring to work silently through collegial persuasion and networked access to important offices. They were analysts at the RAND corporation and their job was to “think the unthinkable.”  They were the brains behind the armored brawn of the most powerful war machine the world had ever known.

James Schlesinger, who was to serve as Secretary of Defense in the Nixon administration, was amongst them, as was Herman Kahn, famous for arguing that America could win a nuclear war and caricatured for it as Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s film by the same name.  There was Albert Wohlstetter, the Columbia trained mathematician described by Henry Kissinger as a “brilliant strategist” and Andrew Marshall whose network in the defense establishment today reads like a who’s who of the Bush cabinet. There was Alain Enthoven, the leader of a team of “whiz kids” who advised Robert McNamara on the conduct of the Vietnam War. And there was Daniel Ellsberg, the weak link in their chain, who broke ranks with his colleagues and went public with the nature of his work and brought down a President as a result.  The story of these iconoclastic men is, in many ways, the story of our times.

Started as a division in the Douglas Aircraft corporation, Project RAND was commissioned in 1945 as a platform to connect research and development with military planning. It was conceived by Gen. H.H. Arnold of the US Army Air Force to retain the scientific experts who had worked for him during wartime and would be lost to the Air Force with the establishment of peace. In 1948, with some legal and financial help from the Ford Foundation, Project RAND was separated from its base in industry and incorporated as a nonprofit organization headquartered in Santa Monica, California.

The other services did not lag far behind in creating think tanks to house their scientific experts and promote research in their fields.  The Army had its Operations Research Office at the Johns Hopkins University and the Navy had its Operations Evaluation Group at M.I.T.  In time, such organizations multiplied: the Institute of Defense Analysis for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense, and the Stanford Research Institute which served no one service in particular. What these organizations represented was a collaboration of military and civilian expertise for war-fighting purposes in a time when warfare had advanced beyond the capabilities of any single profession.

The RAND Corporation became the site of the most inter-disciplinary, cutting edge research that was funded at the time.  It was here that the internet was born, and research proceeded in packet switching, network communication protocols, artificial intelligence, space systems, game theory, linear and dynamic programming and systems analysis. The basic thrust of much of RAND research was to provide tools to government decision makers to analyse complex, multi-variable situations, and make decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty. A network of researchers was pulled in from the most prestigious seats of academia, such as M.I.T., Princeton, California Institute of Technology, together with the most advanced private industry labs such as Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the Carnegie Corporation.

Albert Wohlstetter joined the RAND Corporation in 1949 and worked initially as a systems analysts conducting “third area defense” simulations and studying optimum basing patterns and sortie rates for nuclear bombers.  But it was his writings on the concept of nuclear deterrence where the substance of his thinking was most clearly illustrated.

Oppenheimer had once described the concept of deterrence as “two scorpions in a bottle,” but Wohlstetter saw it differently. Deterrence would only work if America retained the ability to strike even after absorbing a surprise attack by the USSR: “To deter an attack means being able to strike back in spite of it” he wrote.

It was only logical to Wohlstetter that any first strike by the enemy would target America’s nuclear arsenal and its delivery capabilities, which at that time was largely bomber based. This meant that was necessary to calculate what combination of missile strikes in what number would be required to cripple the Strategic Air Command, which was tasked with the delivery of nuclear weapons. If a first strike could take out a substantial portion of America’s arsenal, it would leave America unable to assure the USSR of unacceptable retaliation.

To understand the variety of ways a first strike could play itself out, Wohlstetter performed a series of labyrinthine calculations that took into account protective measures such as dispersal of bomber bases, mobile ICBM’s, hardened targets, air defense systems to intercept incoming bombers and civil defense structures to protect populations. The long span of time that separated a weapon system from its inception to its deployment meant that waiting for the enemy to make his move before countering it would leave a window of vulnerability during which America would be without a deterrent.  Given the catastrophic consequences involved in nuclear war, Wohlstetter argued that even the smallest chance of vulnerability was unacceptable.  This according to him, made it imperative to look ahead and anticipate the enemy’s moves.

In fact, looking ahead to anticipate future threats was a central part of Wohlstetter’s methodology. In an essay published in 1959 Wohlstetter argued for significantly boosting of America’s nuclear umbrella, in number and in its capacity to resist a first strike, in anticipation of Soviet moves to deploy more missiles with greater accuracies in the next ten years. To the imperatives of nuclear deterrence, he went on to recommend a large conventional force capable of fighting a general war against the USSR alongside a full blown nuclear conflict.  And significantly enough, he emphasized the capability to fight in limited theater conflicts, stating that “we do not believe that the full variety of non-nuclear aggressions… can be met with nuclear weapons.”

Wohlstetter also projected that in the 1960s, the American deterrent would have to deter not just the USSR, but China as well.  Grimly pointing out that the Russians suffered 20 million dead in World War II and still emerged as a superpower, he wondered how much damage they would consider as “unacceptable,” that is, enough to deter them from a military adventure in which they might emerge victorious. Against China, he pointed out that the threshold of “unacceptable” damage would probably be significantly higher, and America’s nuclear force structure would have to take this into account.  All this meant that there would be no rest for the military in the 1960s according to Wohlstetter.

But nuclear strategy and war were not the only concerns on Wohlstetter’s mind.  By 1968, Wohlstetter was deeply troubled by the sweeping critiques of America’s global mission  that the Vietnam war was encouraging, both at home and abroad.  In an essay clarifying his thoughts on the war, he disagreed with the popular idea that the war was a product of a military bureaucracy that had lost its moorings.

The Vietnam war, from which he claims to have dissented early on, was the product of bad decision making by McNamara and Rostow in his view.  From the beginning, Wohlstetter thought the architects of the war misread their options. They could either have committed themselves to a political solution involving the reconstruction of South Vietnam through aid and democratic reform, an alternative to which he was sympathetic.  Or they could have opted for a military solution, which meant weighing in with overwhelming force. The imbroglio, in his opinion, was the product of a war strategy that did neither.

Wohlstetter was also troubled by talk that smacked of isolationism, whether by the superpower, or any other country. He was a firm believer in a global order, underwritten by America’s might and secured through the export of American secular and humanistic values to the rest of the world.  In his view America could not be a great power without a worldwide web of interests.  And this web of interests could not be secured through military means alone, although no holes could be left in the military underpinnings of this web in the nuclear age.

In 1962, Wohlstetter left the RAND Corporation and entered academia, doing brief stints in different universities before settling down at the University of Chicago in 1964.  It was here that he met a bright young student doing his dissertation in the Political Science department.  His name was Paul Wolfowitz.  Wolfowitz was drawn to Wohlstetter’s intellect and temperament and began working under his supervision to carry his ideas further.

Wolfowitz became interested in strategic questions in the nuclear age and picked up where Wohlstetter left off.  Where Wohlstetter had warned of preparing for a rearmed USSR and a nuclear China, Wolfowitz considered the third dimension along which nuclear strategy would evolve in the future: nuclear proliferation.

Wolfowitz wrote his dissertation on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East at the University of Chicago before joining the Defense Department as a young recruit in the Middle Eastern affairs division during the Nixon administration.  He argued that America’s strategic posture needed to look beyond simply defending traditional allies against the Communist bloc. Areas where vital natural resources for America’s economy were concentrated ought as much to be part of a strategic defense umbrella, and anybody with capability to threaten these areas must be viewed with concern. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East was a central concern for him since, in true Wohlstetter fashion, he argued that even the hint of nuclear weapons in such an important area was a matter of the gravest concern for America.

Those were the heady seventies, thick with confusion from an enduring recession, a crisis in the Presidency, and withdrawal from a catastrophic war. The national security establishment was under attack from all directions.  Senator William Fulbright had led a Senatorial charge to cap defense expenditures in order to help finance the Great Society programs against poverty at the start of the decade. The Nixon administration had entered into strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) with the USSR to cap the mounting bill from the military build-up of the 1960s. And détente with China had deprived the defense establishment with the only large enemy after the USSR against which it could justify its enormous budgets.

Wohlstetter viewed all these developments with alarm, and in 1974 issued a call to arms to all his cadres.  He claimed that over the past several years, the CIA had been systematically underestimating the Soviet nuclear weapons stockpile in its annual National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) drawn up for the President. He was quickly joined in by a chorus of defense oriented right wing bureaucrats and legislators who believed in a continued global role for the American armed forces. They called for an alternative “threat assessment” to be drawn up by an ad hoc group of individuals from diverse backgrounds alongside the NIE drawn up by the intelligence community.

In 1975, CIA Director William Colby dismissed their request for access to classified intelligence on Soviet nuclear weapons. But the calls were persistent, originating from the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), a panel of appointees who held no other government post and served no function other than “advising” the President on various matters.  It had been used during these times to park pointless conservatives for whom no viable job was available anywhere else in government, but who were too well connected to be left out altogether.
In 1976, when George Bush Sr became CIA director, the request for access to raw intelligence was renewed, and after consulting with the White House, Bush Sr approved it. Three separate teams were constituted to examine raw intelligence on Soviet nuclear assets and produce a report each.  These came to be called the Team B reports. Wolfowitz was an outspoken member.

The contents of the Team B reports are alarming for the threats they saw in the Soviet nuclear build up, and startling for the methodologies they used. They projected that by 1984, the USSR would deploy about 500 Backfire strategic bombers, whereas the real figure in 1984 was less the half that.  They claimed that the Soviet Union was working on an antiacoustic submarine, and failing to find any evidence of one, stated quite seriously that one may already be deployed since it appears to have evaded detection!

Their claims for what the Soviets held, and what they would be in a position to deploy were all drawn from worst case scenarios.  But the Team B reports are more significant for the thinking that they reveal. The authors relied heavily on projecting future Soviet stockpiles in light of current expenditures, and built up a picture of a USSR bent on dominating the world based on wild speculations, including writings by an 18th century Russian General. When the Team B reports were ignored by the Carter administration, the members took their crusade to the press, prompting calls from Congress for hearings on its findings.

When Reagan entered office, the Team B members were back in business.  Wolfowitz was sent as ambassador to Indonesia and other members found positions in the defense and state departments. The Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s and the evil empire rhetoric of the second cold war built on the work of Team B members.  The result was the largest defense budget increases in peacetime history.

By the first Bush administration, Wolfowitz was working for Richard Cheney, the Secretary of Defense.  In May 1990 he delivered a briefing for Cheney recommending that the US take steps to ensure its strategic dominance of the world for the foreseeable future.  He was then assigned as Director, Defense Planning Board of the Pentagon and tasked with writing up the next Defense Planning Guidance paper recommending where America’s military priorities ought to be in the post-Cold war world.

Wolfowitz wrote the DPG 1992 paper and sparked a storm of controversy immediately. The paper was leaked to the New York Times and drew sustained criticism until Cheney had to clarify that it was merely an exercise and not a statement of official policy.

What Wolfowitz produced in that document was nothing less than a blueprint for America to dominate the world.  He argued that after the defeat of the USSR, the next main challengers to American power will emerge on a regional stage, and America must prepare to confront them. This will involve disarming all but a handful of countries of all weapons of mass destruction, and setting an aggressive confrontational posture to militarily dominate those regions where America has any vital interests, whether political or military.

The DPG 1992 was buried when the Bush administration lost the election.  Wolfowitz and his ilk were out of a job but used their time well to do their homework.  He accepted a job as Dean at Johns Hopkins university and maintained contact with his empire builder friends.  They wrote regularly in the Weekly Standard, the right wing organ where many of the ideas that we are seeing put into practice were discussed throughout the 1990s.

Wolfowitz and Wohlstetter come from that section of the American right wing that stands in opposition to the realism of Henry Kissinger. Unlike Kissinger, they see the export of American values as the main prop and justification for an American global mission. This is why Wohlstetter disapproved of McNamara’s handling of the Vietnam war, and perhaps why he felt compelled to answer the pangs of conscience in the face of a worldwide revolt against American imperialism in 1968.
Wohlstetter spent his last few years bitterly chastising Clinton for his inaction in the Bosnian wars, arguing in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal that American hesitation in the face Serbian aggression against the muslims of Bosnia was a travesty, both morally and strategically.  He appealed repeatedly for the embargo on Bosnia to be lifted so that the muslims could at least have an opportunity to defend themselves. Albert Wohlstetter died in 1997.

If Wohlstetter was a moralist at heart because he believed that power had a higher purpose, Andrew Marshall, his contemporary and peer in the RAND Corporation, who also joined in 1949, is a purist.  For Marshall there are no lessons to draw from Vietnam except military lessons, and power is its own justification.

For 23 years, Marshall worked with the RAND Corporation but has left virtually no paper trail behind.  All we know of him is what we are told by those who have known him.  He is known as a man of few words, rarely ever speaking before large gatherings, meticulously avoids leaving behind a record, and has been described as “delphic” in his manner of speech sometimes. And yet his may be the single most enduring legacy of any from amongst his peers.

There is very little to tell us about Marshall’s work at RAND since hardly any of it has been declassified.  In 1972, his friend and fellow RAND researcher, James Schlesinger who was serving as Secretary of Defense in the Nixon administration, created a little office in the Department of Defense titled the Office of Net Assessments (ONA), and made Marshall the Director. The ONA had a murky brief. Marshall’s job was to imagine every kind of threat the US military might ever face.  Marshall used the ONA to assist the Team B in their efforts to access raw intelligence. He followed Soviet military thinking closely, ran war game exercises involving novel scenarios, and taught a summer seminar at the Naval War College. For 30 years Marshall has directed the ONA, and built for himself a formidable reputation and an equally formidable network of protégés in and out of government.

In the 1970s, Marshall busied himself with concepts of ballistic missile defense and closely reading Soviet literature on nuclear war. This is where he came across the writings of the Soviet general staff on the nature of military revolutions. The Soviet officers were arguing that advances in missile, communication and sensor technologies were creating the conditions for a “military technical revolution” somewhat akin to how artillery had rendered horse mounted cavalry obsolete.

Marshall was impressed, and followed this idea of military revolutions closely. He found that the period in the 1920s and 30s was the most dynamic period in military revolutions, seeing new technologies like aircraft, but also new operational concepts in supply and maneouver such as blitzkrieg.  He became an advocate of just such a revolution, but added that it was not exclusively technology driven, but opertationally driven as well.

He called his ideas the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA).  Failing to make much headway with top level decision makers in replacing containment and deterrence thinking with RMA, he turned his attention to the officer corps of the Pentagon. He ran annual exercises, war games and seminars and stimulated his students at the Naval War College to think about warfare in entirely new terms.

He attracted quite a following.  Barry Watts, an air force pilot and graduate of the airforce academy, took his ideas to Northrop Grumman Corporation and as director of their Analysis Center, persuaded the company to look away from large fighter platforms and towards high tech avionics for its future. Grumman was the first company bring the ideas of the RMA on board.

Lt Gen. Andrew Krepenevich of the Marine Corps was another protégé, who was immensely impressed with Marshall‘s novel thinking on the role of information in warfare, and authored a book with Zalmay Khalilzad, an oil company consultant and current Bush envoy to Afghanistan and Iran, on the subject.

His best known protégé is probably Donald Rumsfeld, whose association with Marshall is decades old, dating from Rumsfeld’s early days in the Pentagon.  Rumseld became an early proponent of ballistic missile defense, a Marshall idea and belonged to that clique of hawkish policy makers who were opposed to Kissinger’s ideas of détente and engagement with China.

Following the collapse of the USSR, Marshall had a brief period when he argued that the USSR was now at its most dangerous moment since they might lash out at one last chance to militarily hold their empire together.  In the early 90s, Marshall became a China hawk, arguing that Chinese growth rates had made it possible for China to become a nuclear competitor of the US within 25 years. In 1993 the ONA funded a series of roundtable discussions amongst all the services to discuss the military impact of advances in information technology, the value of space warfare, joint operational commands and greater coordination amongst the services, and the impact of declining budgets on the RMA.

By 1994, Marshall’s twenty year long efforts to convert the Pentagon officer corps were beginning to bear fruit. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Perry started a project to conduct a department wide discussion on the RMA. The project looked at future defense needs till 2015 and recommended the most promising technologies and operational concepts, conducted war games to simulate these defense environments and produced a report on their findings.

When the Bush administration came to power, the RMA was put into practice. Rumsfeld was made the Secretary of Defense, and began by appointing Barry Watts to the Program Evaluation and Assessment Office, James Roche as the Secretary of the Air Force, and empowered Andrew Marshall to conduct a sweeping review of the military and make recommendations to make the military into a 21st century fighting force. The RMA was no longer part of the lunatic fringe from where it had originated. Its adherents were now in control, and were going to make their presence felt.

The outcome was the Quadrennial Defense Review of 2002.  The review called for reshaping the armed forces to make them lighter, faster, more flexible and able to conduct multi theater operations simultaneously. It met fierce resistance from the old guard of the services, who were wedded to the status quo and feared seeing their pet fighter wings, aircraft carrier battle groups and armored divisions get scrapped. But Marshall and his ilk have a history of an almost cult like confidence in their mission, and a determination to succeed that is best seen in their 30 year long effort that has only now come to its moment of truth.

The ideas of Marshall and Wohlstetter drive the foreign policy of the Bush administration. The doctrine of pre-emptive action only takes Wohlstetter’s logic behind the second strike capability to its logical conclusion in a world where those who possess weapons of mass destruction may not be as easily deterred as the USSR was.  And the war on terrorism has provided that environment of perpetual uncertainty in war that Marshall and his protégés have been thinking about for decades. As the superpower girds itself for a ruinous war in an uncertain part of the world, one is reminded of the hubris of power and the follies that led America into the Vietnam war. Today America is being steered into an endless war precisely by those who have been preparing for this sort of world all their lives. We shall soon see whether they know what they are doing.

(*) An earlier draft of this article has been published in the March 2003 issue of Herald Pakistan.

For further analysis and portrait of Paul Wolfowitz see Sunshine Warrior