The fantasy of national invulnerability

July 15, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- There is political as well as military meaning in the conclusions of the independent study published last week on the performance of U.S. high-technology weapons in the Persian Gulf war.

The report, prepared by the government's General Accounting Office at congressional request, says in its unclassified summary that the claims made at the time of the war for the precision and effectiveness of these weapons ''were overstated, misleading, inconsistent with the best available data, or unverifiable.'' It says that it is not evident that these weapons performed any more effectively than lower-technology conventional weapons systems.

They were, on the other hand, a great deal more expensive. The guided, ''smart'' munitions launched on Iraq in 1991 amounted to 8 percent of the total munitions, but cost 84 percent of the total cost of all munitions.

This report is a blow to Pentagon ambitions to buy more of these weapons and develop follow-on systems, but it also casts doubt on a new strategic conception that had promised reconciliation of the seemingly irreconcilable in America's future international policy and strategy.

Current public opinion in the U.S. is contradictory on the general issues of foreign policy. The American people want and expect the U.S. to continue to play a global role, but do not appear willing to accept sacrifices in order to do so. The old elite foreign-policy consensus is today shattered, and the public is unlikely to follow the elite even if the elite could agree. Clinton administration policy thus is driven by business concerns and interest-group domestic politics.

Popular opinion wants the government to preserve America's superpower status while practicing what has to be called neo-isolationism. This does not mean that the United States will end its global economic and commercial engagements, which would be absurd and indeed impossible, or that it ceases to have security concerns in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. It means that Washington defines these concerns in a purely self-interested way, and acts unilaterally to deal with them.

This has already become apparent in trade and economic matters. The U.S. ferociously promotes open markets and free trade abroad, and is trying to widen existing free-trade zones, but resorts to protectionism when American producers are threatened by foreign competition.

As a Japanese diplomat complains (quoted by Martin Walker in the latest issue of the quarterly World Policy Journal), ''Americans may say that they simply want open markets and free trade, but what they mean is that we are supposed to become more like them. They want to change our distribution and retail systems to suit their exporters, and change our finance system to suit their banks.'' This is perfectly true.

In strategy and security policy, the question of how to be isolationist and internationally committed at the same time has seemed to find an answer in the new weapons technology. The Pentagon, and the Air Force in particular, is attempting to develop a huge military ''system of systems: '' an integrated array of intelligence and weapons systems using the new munitions, including novel directed-energy weaponry, controlled from robot airborne or space platforms, making it possible to strike globally without being present globally.

The Navy's planned new ''arsenal'' ships -- low-in-the-water missile-launching platforms, manned by a handful of sailors or even remotely controlled -- are its bid to keep the Air Force from monopolizing advanced weapons and imposing itself as the senior service with the biggest budget.

These new weapons programs have appeared to make it possible for the government to satisfy the public by taking an isolationist stance, while able to conduct military operations globally and have an internationalist strategy. No allies are required, no bases, no foreign deployments -- no U.N. We strike from sea or space, while remaining in our (supposedly) secure national redoubt.

The project is a gigantic manifestation of what increasingly has become the American military style, to create weapons systems so surpassingly advanced as to nullify all opposition through sheer technological audacity. The implicit intention is to resolve the human demands of conflict by bypassing them.

The logical culmination of this is the attempt to create one huge unified system of superlative technical accomplishment, promising total and eternal national security. The logical danger, foreshadowed in some of the weapons programs that already exist, is to create a ''solution'' so costly that it can never be used.

If it were used, the greater danger would be that it didn't work. That is the warning of the report on the Persian Gulf war. Its implication is that this ambition to possess a technologically perfected total defense, combined with global surveillance and offensive omnipotence, is a dream. It is a characteristic American dream, of finding engineering solutions to political and human predicaments.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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