The New Interventionism:
Low-Intensity Warfare in the 1980s
by Michael T. Klare and Peter
from the book
Low Intensity Warfare
published by KEN incorporated
- Philippines, 1988, paper
Twenty-five years after the doctrine of
"counterinsurgency" transformed American military thinking
and swept the nation into the Vietnam War, a new strategy of intervention
is ascending in Washington: the Reagan administration's aggressive
doctrine of "low-intensity conflict," or "LIC"
as it is known in Pentagon circles. LIC begins with counterinsurgency,
and extends to a wide variety of other politico-military operations,
both overt and covert. For U.S. policy-makers and war planners,
however, low-intensity conflict has come to mean far more than
a specialized category of armed struggle; it represents a strategic
reorientation of the U.S. military establishment, and a renewed
commitment to employ force in a global crusade against Third World
revolutionary movements and governments.
In the mind-set of many senior officials,
the decisive battle of this century is now unfolding in this "long
twilight struggle" between America's LIC warriors and the
revolutionary combatants of the Third World. Theirs is an outlook
that identifies Third World insurgencies- and not Soviet troop
concentrations in Europe-as the predominant threat to U.S. security;
it is, moreover, an outlook that calls on the United States to
"take the offensive"-in contrast to the passive stance
of "deterrence" - to overcome the revolutionary peril.
Indeed, LIC has become the battle cry of the late Reagan era-a
clarion call for resurgent U.S. intervention abroad.
In justifying the new interventionism,
LIC advocates invariably begin with a grim assessment of the global
political and military environment. "The plain fact is that
the United States is at war," military expert Neil C..Livingstone
told senior officers at the National Defense University in 1983,
and "nothing less than the survival of our country and way
of life" is at stake in that struggle. This is not, however,
warfare in the classic sense of armies fighting armies on a common
battlefield. "The most plausible scenario for the future,"
he affirmed, is that of "a continuous succession of hostage
crises, peacekeeping operations, rescue missions, and counterinsurgency
efforts, or what some have called 'low frontier warfare.' "
This being the case, it is essential "that the American people
and our policy-makers be educated as to the realities of contemporary
conflict and the need to fight little wars successfully."
Today, this outlook reflects the prevailing
mind-set within the national security bureaucracy. "It is
very important for the American people to know that this is a
dangerous world; that we live at risk and that this nation is
at risk in a dangerous world," Lieutenant Colonel Oliver
North, director of the National Security Council's Counterterrorism
and Low-lntensity Warfare Group, told the Joint House-Senate Select
Committee on Iran and the Contras in July 1987.3 Similar views
were expressed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in his
1987 annual report to Congress: "Today there seems to be
no shortage of adversaries who seek to undermine our security
by persistently nibbling away at our interests through these shadow
wars carried on by guerrillas assassins, terrorists, and subversives
in the hope that they have found a weak point in our defenses."
Unless the United States adopted a comprehensive "national
strategy" to combat low-level wars, he asserted, "these
forms of aggression will remain-the most likely and the most enduring
threats to our security."
To meet this perceived threat, the United
States has now begun to transform its national security apparatus-to
rethink, reorganize, and rearm for current and future engagements
in the Third World. In January 1986, Secretary Weinberger hosted
the Pentagon's first "Low lntensity Warfare Conference"
at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, D.C. That same month,
the Army/Air Force Center for Low-lntensity Conflict (CLIC) was
established "to improve the Army/ Air Force posture for engaging
in low-intensity conflict [and to] elevate awareness throughout
the Army/Air Force of the role of military power in low-intensity
conflict." In addition, a Joint Low-lntensity Conflict Project
(JLIC) was established in 1985 and one year later released a two-volume,
thousand-page Final Report on the concepts, strategy, guidelines,
and application of low-level war-fighting doctrine. in the Third
These initiatives have been accompanied
by a major overhaul of America's war-making capability. To provide
Washington with an enhanced capacity for counter-guerrilla and
"unconventional" operations, as Stephen Goose shows
in Chapter 4, .the Reagan administration has ordered a 100 percent
increase in the Pentagon's "Special Operations Forces"
(SOF)-the Army's "Green Berets," the Navy's "SEALs"
and other elite commando formations. For covert operations of
the sort managed by Lieutenant Colonel North of the NSC, there
is the supersecret "Delta Force," the 160th Army Aviation
Task Force ("the Night Stalkers"), and other paramilitary
"assets" controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency.
And, for more demanding military engagements, there are the four
new light infantry divisions (LlDs) established by the Department
of the Army since 1984.
More important, in the Pentagon's view,
is the development of an appropriate doctrine. for low-intensity
operations. By focusing on the Soviet military threat in Europe,
it is argued, present doctrine has left U.S. troops wholly unprepared
for the unconventional challenges they are likely to face on Third
World battlefields. "Given the proposition that low-intensity
conflict is our most likely form of involvement in the Third World,"
LIC proponent Colonel John D. Waghelstein wrote in 1985, "it
appears that the army is still preparing for the wrong war by
emphasizing the Soviet threat on the plains of Europe." To
ready U.S. forces for the "right" war, Waghelstein and
other senior officers have crusaded for the rapid introduction
of specialized strategy and tactics. For American troops to prevail
in low-intensity warfare, Colonel James B. Motley wrote in Military
Review, "the United States should reorient its forces and
traditional policies away from an almost exclusive concentration
on NATO to better influence politico-military outcomes in the
resource-rich and strategically located Third World areas."
Because the challenge posed by Third World
revolution is politics as much as it is military in nature, the
U.S. response must, according to the Pentagon, be equally comprehensive.
"Low-intensity conflicts cannot be won or even contained
by military power alone," General Donald R. Morelli and Major
Michael M. Ferguson of the U/.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command
affirmed in 1984. "It requires the sychronized application
of-all elements of national power across the entire range of conditions
which are the sources of the conflict."
The foundation of LIC doctrine lies in
the "counterinsurgency" programs the coordinated integration
of economic assistance with psychological operations and security
measures-developed for Latin America after the 1959 Cuban revolution,
and for South Vietnam in the early 1960s. "Counterinsurgency
is the old name for low-intensity conflict," according to
Colonel Waghelstein, former head of the U.S. military group in
El Salvador. However ... the Reagan administration has gone beyond
counterinsurgency as it was seen twenty-five years ago by publicly
committing the United States to a policy of undermining not just
revolutionary movements coming into being, but also revolutionary
regimes which already exist and are perceived as allies of the
Soviet Union. A modernized version of John Foster Dulles's concept
of "rollback" in a counterinsurgency guise, the "Reagan
Doctrine" pro claims a "global offensive against communism
at the fringes of the Soviet Empire." According to the president,
"the tide of Soviet communism can be reversed. All it takes
is the will and the resources to get the job done."
Under Reagan, LIC doctrine has been institutionalized
in the national security bureaucracy. In early 1987, the president
signed legislation that created a unified command for special
operations and established a "Board for Low Intensity Conflict"
within the National Security Council. It also mandated a new bureaucratic
position-deputy assistant to the president for low-intensity conflict.
And, in June 1987, Mr. Reagan signed a highly classified National
Security Decision Directive (NSDD) that authorizes the bureaucracy
to develop and implement a unified national strategy for low-intensity
"How does one begin to bring understanding
to this complex issue?" asks the Joint Low-lntensity Conflict
Project Final Report. The term itself derives from the Pentagon's
image of the "spectrum of conflict"- a theoretical division
of armed conflict into "low," "medium" and
"high" levels, depending on the degree of force and
violence. Guerrilla wars and other limited conflicts fought with
irregular units are labeled "low-intensity conflicts"
(even though the impact of such wars on underdeveloped Third World
countries, like El Salvador, can be quite devastating); regional
wars fought with modern weapons (such as the Iran / lraq conflict)
are considered "mid-intensity conflicts"; and a global
nonnuclear conflagration (like World Wars I and 11) or a nuclear
engagement fall into the "high-intensity". category.
For the Pentagon, however, the definition
of LIC encompasses more than a category of violence: "It
is, first, an environment in which conflict occurs and, second,
a series of diverse civil-military activities and operations which
are conducted in that environment." So deliberately broad
and ambiguous is the official description of low-intensity warfare
that it embraces drug interdiction in Bolivia, the occupation
of Beirut, the invasion of Grenada, and the 1986 air strikes on
Libya. Also included are a wide range of covert political and
psychological operations variously described as "special
operations," "special activities," and "unconventional
But while military strategists depict
LIC as a war for all seasons, in essence it is a doctrine for
countering revolution. The "LIC pie," as Pentagon insiders
call it, is largely divided between counterinsurgency and proinsurgency
operations-what the /LIC Final Report describes as "diplomatic,
economic and military support for either a government under attack
by insurgents or an insurgent force seeking freedom from an adversary
government." In other words, LIC doctrine is meant to be
applied in countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Philippines,
Angola, Cambodia, and Afghanistan, where the United States is
either trying to bolster a client government against a revolutionary
upheaval or fostering a counterrevolutionary / insurgency against
an unfriendly Third World regime.
BEHIND THE LIC PHENOMENON
Washington's growing adherence to LIC
doctrine stems from two interrelated factors. The first is a consensus
among policy-makers and military planners that the United States
has been preparing for an unlikely war in Europe while the "real
war" for the Third World has gone unattended. In the mind-set
of U.S. national security managers, the surge of revolutions,
the escalation of terrorist incidents, and other forms of "ambiguous
aggression" in the 1970s and early 1980s reflected not a
nationalist effort to redress socioeconomic inequality in the
Third World but an attempt by the Soviet Union to "nibble"
away at U.S. interests on the periphery while avoiding a nuclear
confrontation in Europe. Through the Kremlin's use of proxies,
and the calculated exploitation of the political and economic
instability endemic to many Third World societies, it was felt
that the Soviets had successfully challenged U.S. credibility,
authority, and, perhaps most significantly, access to raw materials
and markets of considerable economic importance to the West. "We
depend heavily on some of these nations for strategic minerals
and energy resources," Weinberger informed Congress in 19,84.
"Our economies and the economies of our allies are, therefore,
especially susceptible to disruption from conflicts far from our
For many U.S. strategists, the Third World
has become the primary locus of low-intensity warfare. Given the
strategic importance of many underdeveloped countries, Livingstone
averred, "it is mastery of this type of conflict upon which
the fate of the world is likely to turn." Adherents of this
view are highly critical of the military policies of the Ford
and Carter periods, which placed overwhelming emphasis on the
threat posed by conventional Soviet forces in Central Europe..
As the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant
General Samuel Wilson summarizes this critique: "There is
little likelihood of a strategic nuclear confrontation with the
Soviets. It is almost as unlikely that Soviet Warsaw Pact forces
will come tearing through the Fulda Gap [of West Germany] in a
conventional thrust. We live today with conflict of a different
This "different sort" of conflict,
according to LIC planners, requires a "different sort"
of U.S. response. "The roots of insurgencies are not military
in origin," Secretary of the Army John Marsh explained, "nor
will they be military in resolution." This analysis has led
to an emphasis on nontraditional forms of coercion-economic, diplomatic,
psychological, and paramilitary-what Colonel Waghelstein bluntly
describes as "total war at the grass-roots level."
The deemphasis of conventional military
tactics dovetails with the second major impetus for the ascendency
of LIC doctrine-the search for a politically acceptable mechanism
to wage war in the underdeveloped areas. Bringing the power of
the United States to bear in regional Third World conflicts has
been an obsession of the Reagan administration. Indeed, the administration's
desire to restore intervention as a primary tool of U.S. foreign
policy has dominated Washington's foreign-policy agenda over the
last seven years-despite the fact that it has been constrained
by the reality of an international and domestic environment inhospitable
to the bald assertion of power.
To a great extent, the militant posture
of the administration was a reaction to the changing international
environment Reagan encountered when he assumed office in 1981.
Between 1974 and 1980, a spate of revolutions had swept the Third
World. Beginning with Vietnam, the wave of change brought the
ouster of corrupt or colonial regimes the United States had once
supported in at least a dozen countries, including Angola, Mozambique,
Ethiopia, Iran, Grenada, and Nicaragua.
For the Reagan team, this accumulation
of U.S. "defeats" in the Third World was a bitter pill.
"The escalating setbacks to our interests abroad," Secretary
of State Alexander Haig proclaimed when the administration took
office in 1981; "and the so-called wars of national liberation,
are putting in jeopardy our ability to influence world events."
Given the long history of America's quest for world paramountcy,
it was inevitable that Washington would seek to redress its losses,
reassert its power, and attempt to restore its global dominion
to the halcyon days of the- Cold War.
Yet any such assertion of imperial will
was conditioned by the domestic repercussions of America's debacle
in Vietnam. The U.S. public had lost much of its innocence during
the long and futile conflict in Indochina. Despite intensive White
House efforts to erase it, the "Vietnam syndrome"-a
clear and pervasive reluctance of American citizens to support
overt U.S. intervention in local Third World conflicts- placed
severe political constraints on the use of U.S. military power
Low-intensity conflict doctrine offered
the Reaganauts an irresistible solution to this dilemma. It presented
the prospect of waging a war not defined as such. No draft would
be necessary; few soldiers would be deployed, and even fewer would
be sent home in body bags. Therein lay the great appeal of LIC
doctrine: the ability to overcome the limits on American power
while pursuing the counterrevolutionary goals of a president determined
to restore U.S. dominion where once it had been lost.
THE HISTORICAL ORIGINS OF LIC
But while the terminology and some of
the tactics of current LIC doctrine may be original, much of the
intent is consistent with previous episodes in American history.
Under one banner or another, the United States has been waging
low-level wars in the Third World for many decades-from the Philippines
at the turn of the century to Nicaragua in the early 1930s. The
end of World War II, moreover, ushered in a new era of low-level
engagement. With the Truman Doctrine in 1946, the United States
began to develop a rudimentary counterinsurgency strategy for
combating Communist guerrillas in Greece. In 1947, the clandestine
apparatus that had conducted "special activities" behind
enemy lines during the war was reorganized under the National
Security Act as the Central Intelligence Agency. Under successive
administrations, the CIA became deeply embroiled in paramilitary
activities in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin
To be sure, U.S. strategists focused most
of their attention during the early Cold War period on the threat
posed by Soviet conventional forces in Europe and the threat of
Communist military encroachment elsewhere. Korea was the first
manifestation of Washington's commitment to wage conventional
conflict in the nuclear age; it was also the first manifestation
of the American reluctance to embrace a protracted military campaign
of unclear purpose and meaning. By the time Washington negotiated
a cease-fire in 1953, most Americans were weary of the war and
eager to avoid similar entanglements in the future.
To reduce military expenditures while
providing a credible counterweight to Soviet conventional strength,
President Eisenhower adopted the strategy of "Massive Retaliation"-a
doctrine relying on the threat of a U.S. nuclear strike to prevent
nonnuclear incursions by the Soviet Union in Europe and elsewhere.
In accordance with this approach, Eisenhower presided over a major
buildup of U.S. nuclear forces and a corresponding reduction in
America's nonnuclear ground and naval strength.
Although Eisenhower quietly unleashed
the CIA to overthrow nationalist governments in Iran and Guatemala,
the doctrine of Massive Retaliation dominated formal U.S. strategic
policy between 1952 and 1960. But Massive Retaliation did not,
and could not, deter the emergence of revolutionary guerrilla
upheavals in Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, and other far-flung corners
of the Third World. Political and economic instability in the
underdeveloped regions was, in large part, attributable to the
dissolution of colonial empires in the aftermath of World War
II. Yet, U.S. policy-makers chose to portray the so-called "wars
of national liberation" as Soviet-instigate proxy wars against
the West meant to circumvent U.S. nuclear superiority. "Massive
Retaliation as a guiding strategic concept has reached a dead
end," General Maxwell Taylor wrote in his 1960 best-seller,
The Uncertain Trumpet "While our massive retaliatory strategy
may have prevented the Great War-a World War III-it has not maintained
the Little Peace: that is, peace from disturbances which are little
only in comparison with the disaster of general war.
To provide a credible, realistic response
to future such "disturbances" in the Third World, General
Taylor advocated a strategy of Flexible Response-the development
of a large and multifunctional conventional force of unprecedented
flexibility. The term Flexible Response, he noted, "suggests
the need for a capability to react across the entire spectrum
of possible challenge, for coping with anything from general atomic
war to infiltrations and aggressions such as threaten Laos and
Berlin." The new strategy, moreover, "would recognize
that it is just as necessary to deter or win quickly a limited
war as to deter general war."
This strategic doctrine, which theoretically
incorporated a capability to engage simultaneously or serially
in irregular, conventional, or nuclear warfare, was enthusiastically
embraced by John F. Kennedy upon his election as president in
1960. One of Kennedy's first acts in office was to order his secretary
of defense, Robert McNamara, to plan and manage an across-the-board
buildup of America's conventional military forces. Seeking a vigorous
response to the Cuban revolution and to mounting turmoil in Southeast
Asia, he also mandated that the U.S. military, in coordination
with other national security agencies, be mobilized to wage wars
of suppression against revolutionary guerrilla upheavals in the
Third World. in National Security Action Memorandum No. 124, signed
January 18, 1962, Kennedy called for "proper recognition
throughout the U.S. government that subversive insurgency ('wars
of liberation') is a major form of politico-military conflict
equal in importance to conventional warfare."
As a result, the U.S. Army was ordered
to expand its Special Forces detachments and to step up training.
in counter-guerrilla operations. Interagency committees were established
to coordinate State Department, Defense Department, CIA, and USIA
political, economic, and psychological operations. "Subversive
insurgency is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient
in its origins," the president told West Point graduates
in i962. "It requires in those situations where we must counter
it . . . a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind
of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of training."
Kennedy's near-obsession with guerrilla
warfare gave rise to the doctrine of counterinsurgency, which
inexorably led the United States into the jungles of Indochina.
Vietnam was to be the first "test case" of America's
counterinsurgency capability under realistic battlefield conditions.
In his last year in office,. President Kennedy authorized a buildup
of Special Forces advisers, the deployment of U.S. combat aircraft,
and the initiation of a broad "civic action" program
in South Vietnam in order to counter stepped-up guerrilla activity
by the National Liberation Front (NLF). "Here we have a going
laboratory," General Taylor informed Congress in 1963, "where
we see subversive insurgency, the Ho Chi Minh doctrine, being
applied in all its forms."
Once Vietnam was designated as a proving
ground for U.S. counterinsurgency, it became essential for Washington
to avoid defeat-lest America's failure encourage leftist insurgents
in other countries to employ the "Ho Chi Minh doctrine."
With U.S. credibility on the line in Vietnam, the option of retreat
became increasingly difficult to contemplate. As Taylor suggested
in a secret 1964 memorandum to McNamara, "The failure of
our programs in South Vietnam would have heavy influence on the
judgements of Burma, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan,
the Republic of Korea, and the Republic of the Philippines with
respect to U.S. durability, resolution and trustworthiness."
Unable to resist such arguments, Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson,
ordered more U.S. advisers and counterinsurgency teams into Southeast
Asia. And when it became apparent that South Vietnamese government
forces were no match for the North Vietnamese-backed NLF, five
hundred thousand U.S. troops were deployed in a futile effort
to rescue American "credibility. "
As casualties mounted without any corresponding
sign of military success, American public opinion turned against
the war. By the end of the 1960s, this opposition was variously
manifested in massive student uprisings, militant resistance to
the draft, a split among American elite between the prowar "hawks"
and the antiwar "doves," and other symptoms of public
discontent. Ultimately, the schisms at home became so volatile
that most U.S. Ieaders-McNamara among them-concluded that the
war was lost and withdrawal was essential. On April 15,1975, the
last American helicopter lifted off the U.S. Embassy rooftop in
Saigon-as North Vietnamese troops took over the city.
Vietnam inspired a deep-seated public
resistance to protracted U: military involvement abroad. In a
political climate hostile to war, the antiwar forces secured the
passage of significant restrictions on direct U.S. involvement
in future regional conflicts in the Third World. The draft was
abolished. Congressional oversight of the CIA was mandated. The
"War Powers Act" was passed; no longer could a president
order the extended deployment of U.S. troops abroad without congressional
Predictably, this domestic political backlash
also contributed to the discrediting of the doctrines and a dismantling
of the forces that had spearheaded the United States involvement
in Indochina. The budget for the Pentagon's Special Operations
Forces was cut; the ClA's paramilitary capabilities were curtailed;
and counterinsurgency quickly disappeared from the Pentagon lexicon
as the Department of Defense turned its attention once again to
the less controversial task of enhancing U.S. capabilities in
the European theater. "The lesson of Vietnam is that we must
throw off the cumbersome mantle of world policeman," is the
way Senator Edward Kennedy summarized the prevailing liberal postwar
attitude regarding future intervention in the Third World.
Nevertheless, a small contingent of officers,
analysts, and political operators inside the national security
establishment, supported by a growing neoconservative movement,
committed themselves to restoring the United States as the "guardian
at the gate" of a global hegemonic order. Jimmy Carter's
halfhearted attempt to move America beyond what he called "an
inordinate fear of communism" provided the grist for a right-wing
offensive mounted by such groups as the Committee on the Present
Danger, the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and Georgetown
University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Carter's
foreign and military policies were characterized by weakness and
vacillation, these groups argued, permitting the Soviet Union
to undermine U.S. security by sponsoring revolution in the Third
World. "Containment of the Soviet Union is not enough,"
averred a policy paper drafted by a group of would-be Reagan advisers,
and published by the Council for Inter-American Security in mid-1980.
"Détente is dead. Survival demands a new US foreign
policy. America must seize the initiative or perish. For World
War III is almost over."
To successfully wage "World War III,"
the proponents of low intensity warfare advocated a complete overhaul
of U.S. strategies and capabilities for waging counterrevolution
in the Third World. With the dynamic of revolution in Central
America as a catalyst, in the early 1980s their policy recommendations
began to gain widespread attention within the national security
bureaucracy. In forum after forum, LIC theorists advanced their
case. One 1983 conference on "Special Operations in U.S.
Strategy," hosted by the National Defense University (NDU)
at Fort McNair, called for the United States "to develop
diverse and even novel ways to defend its economic and geopolitical
interests when these are affected by unconventional conflicts."
In the audience was a then unknown staff officer of the NSC, Lieutenant
Colonel (then Major) Oliver North.
As the Reagan period proceeded, advocates
of LIC doctrine were given ever-expanded authority to convert
their theories into practice.
"HEARTS AND MINDS" AT HOME
To sustain these campaigns abroad, and
to consolidate LIC as a standard tool of U.S. intervention, U.S.
policy-makers perceive an urgent need to wage a war at home-to
fight for the "hearts and minds" of the American people.
Given the public's continuing adherence to the "Vietnam syndrome,"
a political campaign to garner grass-roots support for renewed
interventionism is considered an essential component of LIC doctrine.
"In order to promote a broad understanding of the issues
involved, a carefully created, sophisticated and ongoing public
diplomacy effort is necessary," the JLIC Firzal Report avows.
The need for public politicization has also been underlined by
the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force, J. Michael Kelly.
"I think the most critical special operations mission we
have today is to persuade the American public that the Communists
are out to get us," he declared at the 1983 3 NDU conference
attended by Colonel North. "If we win the war of ideas, we
will win everywhere else." Clearly, the Reagan administration's
heavy-handed rhetoric about Central American "freedom fighters,"
Nicaragua's "totalitarian dungeons," and the constant
peril of terrorism is all part of this "war of ideas"-a
synchronized effort to legitimize intervention as a paramount
feature of America's political and military landscape.
Such efforts are considered particularly
crucial because low-intensity conflict-almost by definition-entails
an alliance with right-wing forces and regimes that are not known
for their democratic sensibilities or respect for the rules of
war. "The American view of war is generally incompatible
with the characteristics and demands of counterrevolution,"
LIC theorist Sam C. Sarkesian observed in Air University Review.
To defeat a revolutionary movement, insurgent leaders must be
identified, abducted, or somehow eliminated a process that normally
involves the widespread use of torture and assassination. "If
American involvement [in counterrevolution] is justified and necessary,"
Sarkesian notes, national leaders and the public must understand
that low-intensity conflicts do not conform to democratic notions
of strategy or tactics. Revolution and counterrevolution develop
their own morality and ethics that justify any means to achieve
success. Survival is the ultimate morality.
This belief that "any means"
are justified in conducting counterrevolutionary warfare is a
common subtheme in current discussions of low intensity warfare.
"The 'dirty little wars' of our time are not pretty,"
Neil Livingstone told senior U.S. officers in 1983, but if we
shrink back from harsh and brutal measures, "we abrogate
our ability to engage successfully in low-level conflict."
Among his suggestions for success in low-intensity warfare: restrictions
on media access to foreign war zones; diminished congressional
"micromanagement" of LIC operations; and the employment
of bounty hunters to track down and assassinate suspected terrorists.
"While such recommendations would surely provoke an outcry
from civil libertarians," he noted, the United States is
"at war" in the Third World, "and in wartime the
only thing that counts is winning."
By any standard, the most dramatic explication
of this point of view was contained in Colonel North's July 1987
testimony to the select congressional committee on the Iran-contra
affair. Arguing that the United States was vitally threatened
by Soviet-backed forces in the Third World, North repeatedly affirmed
that U.S. national security justifies the employment of covert
paramilitary operations, and, to help conceal such operations
from our adversaries, the calculated dissemination of false and
misleading information by (and to) U.S. officials. "There
is great deceit [and] deception-practiced in the conduct of covert
operations," he declared. "They are at essence a lie."
To a large degree, the pervasive secrecy
favored by North and his associates at the NSC was intended to
avert public disclosure of controversial-and probably illegal-administration
dealings with Iran and the contras. But closer analysis suggests
that the emphasis on covert warfare stems from a deeper cause:
the Reagan administration's growing frustration with the military
contraints associated with continuing public adherence to the
Given continuing public resistance to
overt intervention abroad, it is likely that secrecy, deception,
and intrigue will remain essential features of the domestic political
landscape. Indeed, whatever the immediate consequences of the
Iran-contra disclosures, there is no evidence that American leaders-be
they Democrats or Republicans-have any intention of repudiating
current LIC doctrine or of dismantling the Pentagon's "special"
military forces. If anything, one can detect growing support among
U.S. policy-makers for an expansion of America's LIC capabilities:
witness, for instance, the bipartisan congressional support accorded
the administration's plans for a multibillion-dollar buildup of
U.S. special operations capabilities. Low-intensity conflict has
been anointed as the paramount strategic concern of the late Reagan
era, and we will feel Its repercussions for many years to come.
This being the case, the authors believe
it essential that the American people become more familiar with
official thinking on low-intensity warfare, and press for an open
national debate on the costs and perils of LIC doctrine. Such
a debate must consider two broad issues: the probable military
consequences of U.S. intervention abroad, and the political and
moral consequences at home.
The military debate has, of course, already
been initiated by the proponents of LIC doctrine. Without a vigorous
U.S. response to Soviet-sponsored expansionism, they argue, the
United States will be deprived of access to critical raw materials
and will ultimately experience an irreversible loss of power to
the Soviet bloc. These are serious concerns, and they merit careful
consideration. All too often, however, their purveyors fail to
acknowledge that Soviet influence in the Third World has been
declining in recent years as once-radical regimes turn to the
West for capital and technology; similarly, they often overlook
the fact that the United States has not experienced any significant
difficulties in obtaining the strategic raw materials it requires
for its high-tech industries. More than this, however, the pro-LIC
argument fails to consider the perils we face by engaging in intervention,
rather than by avoiding it.
In assessing these perils, it is useful
to recall the paramount lesson of Vietnam: that even a "limited"
deployment of U.S. military and political power has a way of expanding
into a much larger commitment of American strength. ... "the
slippery slope from advice and assistance to commitment of combat
forces has always been steeper for the United States than for
other countries." Current LIC doctrine seeks to minimize
that risk by enhancing the military capabilities of host-nation
forces. But such forces can fail, as they did in Vietnam, and
then the pressures to salvage an American ally by deploying American
forces can become overpowering. Secretary Weinberger alluded to
this risk in his 1987 report to Congress: "Although we seek
to counter subversion through the methods [prescribed by LIC doctrine],
the United States has, in the past, responded effectively with
force to blunt this kind of aggression . . and retains the capability
and the will to do so again should it be deemed necessary."
Surely, he added, "no one can contend that it is to our advantage
to allow a communist-supported subversion to convert a friendly
government into a communist enemy, and particularly not in our
Such an intervention, however "low-intensity"
in theory, would not be without significant costs or perils Direct
U.S. involvement in a politically charged Third World conflict,
would surely provoke considerable dissent at home, and possibly
within the American military itself. A protracted struggle, moreover,
could result in considerable American casualties and would certainly
generate pressures for reinstatement of the draft. In the Third
World itself' the consequences would be even more severe: American
firepower would inevitably produce some civilian casualties (no
matter how "surgical" the delivery of munitions), and
the ravages of war would leave many people homeless, hungry, and
stripped of their means of livelihood. Indeed, we can already
witness the devastating consequences of "low-intensity warfare"
in both El Salvador and Afghanistan. As these wars grind on, the
social and economic infrastructure is shattered, thus destroying
any chance of escaping from poverty and underdevelopment.
We must also recognize that the growing
worldwide availability of high-tech conventional weapons is systematically
eroding the gap between "low-" and "mid-intensity
conflict," and likewise between "mid-" and "high-intensity
conflict." As the 1987 Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark
demonstrated, our major military systems are highly vulnerable
to sophisticated weapons of the sort now possessed by many Third
World nations. Previously, as noted by two Army theorists in Military
Review, distinctly different forces and weapons were developed
for each type of warfare; today, "with the greater dispersion,
increased kill probabilities and improved mobility [of modern
weapons], those types of war along the spectrum of conflict may
be more similar than they are dissimilar." What this means,
of course, is that a war that starts out as "low-intensity
conflict" can escalate overnight to the "mid" or
"high" category-a risk that is particularly acute in
the highly militarized Persian Gulf area. As Selig Harrison suggests
in Chapter 8, moreover, low-intensity conflict can lead to a U.S.-Soviet
confrontation, if intervention by one superpower invites countermoves
by the other (as has occurred in Afghanistan) and triggers an
uncontrolled spiral of escalation.
Turning to the domestic political consequences
of the new interventionism, we can see a variety of threats to
American rights and liberties. First and foremost i5 the threat
to public information. LIC theorists have made no secret of their
belief that an active press and Congress represent a significant
obstacle to military effectiveness. "The United States will
never win a war fought daily in the U.S. media or on the floor
of Congress," Livingstone told senior officers at the National
Defense University. Similarly, Colonel North went out of his way
to justify the concealment of information-even from the appropriate
committees of Congress-on covert LIC operations abroad.
But the public's access to information
is only one casualty of the war at home... any sustained effort
to mislead and circumvent Congress poses a serious threat to the
integrity of the constitutional process. If the Executive considers
itself above the law, and NSC operatives are authorized to conduct
an independent foreign policy, then we can no longer rely on the
checks and balances that are our ultimate safeguard against tyranny.
Just how vulnerable these protections have become was dramatically
revealed in Colonel North's July 10, 1987, testimony, when he
disclosed that former CIA Director William J. Casey had proposed
the establishment of an "off-the-shelf, self-sustaining,
stand-alone entity" that could perform covert political and
military operations without accountability to Congress. "If
you carry this to its logical extreme," Senator Warren B.
Rudman observed two days later, "you don't have a democracy
And not only democracy is at risk, but
also our basic moral values. While U.S. Ieaders always claim that
they seek to promote American values when authorizing military
intervention abroad, the outcome is often quite another matter...
U.S. support for counterrevolution inevitably risks American entanglement
in the repressive behavior of Third World autocrats and their
heavy-handed security forces. Once committed to the survival of
these regimes, we often compound our sins by failing to curb blatant
abuses or worse, by telling ourselves that occasional atrocities
can be overlooked in the name of "democracy." From there,
it is but a short distance to the view that any means are justified
in the pursuit of victory, even the wholesale liquidation of civilian
communities. Thus, however assiduously Washington seeks to minimize
the risks, deepened U.S. involvement in low-intensity conflict
abroad could impose intolerable strains on the moral fabric of
In their preface to the LIC Final Report,
the members of the Joint Low-lntensity Conflict Project affirm
that their intention was to initiate an "enlightened debate"
on, the type of conflict most likely to engage American forces
in the years ahead. "In this sense," they affirmed,
the Final Report "is not a prescription but an invitation."
In editing this book, the authors have taken up this invitation.
We believe that the essays contained herein represent an important
contribution to an "enlightened debate" on low-intensity
conflict. But we do not believe that the debate is now concluded;
there are too many aspects of low-intensity conflict-some still
only dimly understood-and too many risks to leave it at that.
Only through a broad and open discussion of LIC theory and practice
can the American citizens make intelligent decisions on policies
that are likely to affect our lives and liberties for many years
US and Third World