Category Archives: Pentagon Stumbles

Soft Power Becomes a Military-Dominated Counter-Everything…

Soft power, all the rage in the ivory tower, but ever so slowly being eclipsed in the Defense Department as mission excitement builds for China and that old foe Iran, is here to stay in that way that the Pentagon knows how to overdo everything: write the regulations and doctrine, open specialty institutions, build an internal constituency.  And of course, spend money, which in the military budget is a pittance but in comparison to other departments and agencies is a King’s ransom, which is why soft becomes hard, and everything that the U.S. government attempts to turn into non-military becomes military by default.

As Secretary Robert Gates nudged the rest of the government to do more so that the military didn’t have to do everything, and the commentators of everything-is-pathetic-except-for-the-military love to point out that the State Department can’t even find enough volunteers to man its hazardous posts in the perpetual warzone.  Come to think of it, I wonder if DOD could if their assignments were equally voluntary.

But I digress.  Institutionalized soft power a la Pentagon practice does take resources, and bodies, and pretty soon, hard power is compromised.  So there’s a double loss for America: Military priorities get distorted, and the distinction between what is military and what is civilian fades.

This week, European Command (EUCOM) announced the opening of a new Joint Interagency Counter Trafficking Center in Stuttgart, Germany; a kind of unremarkable and typical blah, blah, blah, even for the once important European Command constantly looking for mission and relevance.  The new center focuses on trafficking in drugs, weapons, humans and other illicit commodities.  Army Brig. Gen. Mark Scraba, the center’s director, told American Forces Press Service that criminal networks were increasingly able to operate across national borders and build alliances.  Among the greatest concerns, he said, is the convergence of drug and terror networks.  The fusion center, the director says, has fewer than 40 staff members, and includes representatives of the FBI, DIA and other U.S. government agencies.

Fewer than 40 staff members indeed, but you gotta ask: Why is this paid for out of the defense budget?  Why does the military have to take the lead for the interagency to work?  How many additional contractors and supporters are really expended?  How does this subtly impact and undermine core military missions?  How does it slowly turn the military into a global law enforcement entity?

When the U.S. government started trumpeting the term narco-terrorism after 9/11, I took it to be a cynical effort to rename the war on drugs and the activities of the left-out combatant commands like Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) in the new mono-focus of terrorism.  The term in fact had been coined by President Fernando Belaúnde Terry of Peru in 1983, according to Wikipedia.  The adoption by DOD was in fact cynical, but soon enough they discovered that the most pressing narco problem was in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a mission that initially they relegated to the Brits and the NATO partners, but have been slowly taking over.  EUCOM’s center is really a product of endless fighting in Afghanistan.

EUCOM’s center joins the counter-narcotics and counter-narcoterrorism effort at Central Command (CENTCOM), which takes place in the Afghanistan and Pakistan Center (APC).   SOUTHCOM has their new Countering Transnational Organized Crime (CTOC) division.   Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has both a CTF [counter-threat finance] team and a TNT/CNT [transnational terrorism/counter narcoterrorism] division.  So does Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which has built up a whole group of Colorado Springs-based efforts fighting transnational criminal organizations (narcotics trafficking, human smuggling, weapons, money laundering/threat finance etc.), focused mostly on Mexico.

All of these field outposts feed into the counter-narcotics and counter trafficking intelligence efforts of the CIA – through its long-standing Crime and Narcotics Center — NSA, DIA, Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), etc.  Even the Navy’s Nimitz Operational Intelligence Center has a Transnational Threat Department (TNT).  This is not even to mention the two Joint Intelligence Agency Taskforces focused on the war on drugs: South (JIATF-S) in Key West and West (JIATF-W) at Camp Smith, Hawaii.  The Department of Homeland Security, of course, has gotten into the act, opening an ICE Bulk Cash Smuggling Center and other organizations.

None of this particularly surprises me, even when budgets are supposedly so strained.  But I can’t help continue to think that the entire effort is both cynical and ass-backwards.  If we want soft anything, we have to lead with non-military efforts.

The Obama administration, not surprisingly, has made it worse, contributing to the mission creep into organized crime and human trafficking, through its Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging Threats to National Security, released in July 2011.

That Strategy called for DOD to enhance its support to law enforcement with the creation of the  Narcotics and Transnational Crime Support Center.  James Miller, the new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy called the Center “a dedicated DoD-led center that integrates military, intelligence, and law enforcement analytic capabilities to go after key nodes in global criminal networks.”  It reflects, he says, “the added value that the Defense department brings to whole-of-government efforts against transnational organized crime.”

Kathleen Hicks, who replaces Miller as Principal Deputy, told Congress:  “DoD should also consider how it can play a role in breaking the links among criminal organizations, terrorists, and insurgencies.  As the President’s strategy states, “terrorists and insurgents are increasingly turning to TOC [transnational organized crime] to generate funding and acquiring logistical support to carry out their violent acts.” As the Department continues with its counterterrorism efforts around the world, it will be important to account for the links between criminal and terrorist entities.”

I’d never heard of this Center, and Internet research turns up very little.  What I’ve pieced together is that it is located in Crystal City, Virginia, and the director reports to the Deputy Assistant Security of Defense for Counter Narcotics and Global Threats.  Camber Corporation is providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) expertise to link the Center to NSA.  Semper Fi Solutions, Inc. is providing CENTCOM liaison officers in Tampa to the Crystal City based center, as well as corruption and “predatory” analysts.

Other contractors providing intelligence support to the trafficking empire include: BAE Systems, Celestar, Delex Systems, Duer Advanced Technology & Aerospace (DATA), FedSys, Inc., General Dynamics Information Technology, L-3 STRATIS, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Prosync Technology Group, and SAIC.  Parsons Corporation is working on the methamphetamine/precursor chemicals problem set for the DIA.

Finally, one has to ask, with all of the enhanced intelligence collection and sharing and border control that is part of the post 9/11 world, why is this problem getting worse?  How is that possible, that borders are more porous?  So much for the war against terrorism.  No wonder they call it the forever war.

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In Defense of Defense of the F-22

Should we say Bravo! to the Air Force for doing its job, for doing what the military services are supposed to do, which is to train and equip, to advocate for their mission and specialty, and then to move out smartly when overruled by higher ups?  Or should we just shut down the junior service because it’s so pathetic?

The Air Force received the final, 187th F-22 Raptor jet last week in Georgia, destined to join the 3rd Wing’s 525th Fighter Squadron, stationed at the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.  Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz was on hand to blather on about “America’s first 5th generation fighter aircraft,” thanking the line workers, and then heading back to his Pentagon credenza, where no doubt he was preparing to weather the onslaught.

First came ABC News, with Senator Take-No-Prisoners McCain repeating the old bombast that the F-22 is useless because it has never been used in combat.  In almost seven years not a single one of the jets, which cost an estimated $420 million-plus each, has ever been used, ABC said.

60 Minutes followed, sucking all of the oxygen out of any decent discourse, scoring the coup of having actual pilots “without permission … blow the whistle on a plane they love to fly.”

The GAO piled on.

Lockheed Martin tweeted and tweeted in response how fabulous the plane is, oblivious to what was going on all around.  The Air Force produced Gen. Mike Hostage – no kidding – to tell us that the F-22 was in fact being deployed and used all over.  This nation needs this airplane – and every one of them,” he said. “I wish I had ten times as many as I have.”  Really only the Air Force Association and the network of retired airpower advocates have joined the battle, attempting to answer the F-22 critics.

They are all missing the point.

There’s so much to be said about the news media and how opportunistic it is, stuck in a mode of having to make every story a bombshell.  There’s so much to be said about the Air Force, which just can’t get beyond its institutional inferiority complex and can’t see the big picture because it is constantly bunkered and under attack.  There’s so much to be said about the idiocy of the public defense debate stuck in some 1980’s mode of waste, fraud, and abuse, weapons-won’t-or-don’t-work.

But the real issue is that we have no defense policy, no national security strategy.  We’re fighting in Afghanistan and no one other than the government and military supports it or cares; we’ve declared terrorism an existential threat that isn’t one; we’re pivoting to Asia to unstick ourselves from the Middle East, making believe that there is some military solution in the future; we’re hanging on to and hostage to gajillions of dollars of nukes – “not used in combat” in 60 years, get it?; we’re watching new constituencies in favor of perpetual war emerge – homeland security, the intelligence community, special operations, the cyber warriors, the counter-IED kingdom, the counter-threat finance sleuths, the counter-narcoterrorism fighters – and seem oblivious to the age of special interests that takes advantage of the absence of a national security strategy.  No wonder every Congressman and woman just tries to get and save bases, contracts, and weapons in their districts and states: The Defense Department and the federal government has completely failed to articulate in any useful way why x is needed and y isn’t, so it all boils down to politics, what’s best for the district or State, and every special interest just establishes alliances to pursue what it can get.

The F-22 symbolizes all of this dysfunction, particularly that part about our debate stuck in some weird 1980’s time warp.   But what’s really happening is that the plane is just too good, too good for even the pilots, too powerful, too fast, too flexible, too magnificent.  And as such, it should be seen as part of a sea change, as a seam between an old era and a new, rather than some industrial object to be audited.

Like the 10 last-inch-seeking hyper-reliable MIRVs that we finally stuffed on top of the triple-somersaulting MX missile in the 1980’s (and then abandoned for being too much), the F-22 is too much for what is really needed for our national security, which is to say, that just because it’s the best doesn’t mean it’s buying us anything.

I’m an agnostic one way or another about the airplane, but do appreciate the details of its capabilities, including how fabulous it is as an intelligence platform, how it can dog fight and bomb at the same time…  The real question we have to ask ourselves is whether 187 of anything carrying two or twenty bombs, no matter how accurate, is going to defeat a China or Russia?  Of course it isn’t; it’s a “deterrent,” it’s a symbol; it’s a lab experiment.   It’s all sorts of things that might actually be good for America except that we can’t really determine whether that’s so unless we look at our national security in a lot broader way, shorn of love for boots on the ground and hate for the fly boys, shorn of pro-Europe and Pacific and anti-Middle East, shorn of COIN versus big war.

Is this my only choice: More killer drones?  More main battle tanks?  More opaque spending on intelligence and special operations?  More cyber this and that?  More PTSD?

In which case then, I’ll take the F-22s.   Everything that the drones and the tanks and the magnificent covert operators represent seem both more mischievous and dangerous for the future of America.

Sainthoood for Robert Gates, really?

Every few days, something about former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, soon to be nominated for sainthood, flows into my in box.  The latest is some bumph from Drew University where Gates is lauded as the “soldier’s secretary” and a lot of blah, blah, blah proving that Gates has fully transformed into the Warren Buffett of national security, the nation’s grandpa with wit and wisdom about Washington; and, despite seemingly no political ambition …  auditioner to be Mitt Romney’s vice president?

The Gates legacy as Secretary still remains unclear.  After Rumsfeld, of course, one couldn’t help but label him the soldier’s man; Rumsfeld was such a cold and indifferent taskmaster.  Gates also became Secretary at a time when others had already solved the Iraq conundrum, and when the dollars were still flowing freely.

Gates’ record does include his decision to cap the F-22 fighter buy against Air Force objections, his decision to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) and his other ‘efficiencies,’ and his embrace of irregular warfare and counter-insurgency as the everything of the future.

I’m an agnostic on the F-22, but I don’t agree with the old Gates’ line that the airplane was worthless because it wasn’t doing anything for the troops on the ground right at that moment in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And Gates’ decision to side with the Army over control of unmanned drones that fly above 3,500 feet and his support of efforts – in the name of jointness — to make everyone in the Air Force and Navy battlefield helpers was short-sighted, demonstrating the kind of courage of breaking eggs to make a Washington omelet but hardly being a designer of a larger menu.

The decision to eliminate JFCOM particularly will go down as short-sighted, IMHO: Jointness in the U.S. military is in name only and has not reached any working-level where the military no longer needs an advocate for it – Gate’s basic position.  If anything, under Gates, we’ve just seen a continuation of the proliferation of un-jointness, with institutions beyond the Army, Navy, and Air Force obtaining quasi-service status and working in their own self-interested bubbles: special operations forces, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) – a virtual Army in itself, Cyber Command (the first combatant command of the intelligence community), homeland “defense” (a post-9/11 perpetual resource suck); even the National Guard, which has now lobbied successfully for full joint privileges.

This is not the man who ‘beat the Pentagon bureaucracy,’ and I remain surprised at how many Pentagon reporters and national security analysts can be so convinced merely because he was such a pleasant vacation from Grumsfeld.

Meanwhile, Gates never really did anything about contractors – let’s track them better was his initiative, especially after in-sourcing went nowhere – and Mr. Strategic vision, the former CIA analyst – seemed oblivious to the Obama administration’s do-anything-to-get-us-out-of-the-Middle-East pivot to Asia.  Also, by every account, Gates as Secretary had nothing to say in the early Obama period about Afghanistan that was useful, contributing mightily to leaving behind the same mess there.

Gates’ is labeled an airpower skeptic because of his supposed courageous decisions, but in reality he was little more than a traditionalist pro-Army-dominant, pro-boots-on-the-ground power broker who went with the institution that had the power.  I admit to being an airpower fan, but not a fan of the Air Force, which conflates a non-boots-on-the-ground future with its institutional interests.  Slogging it out Korean War style or even, one village/hill/tribe at a time in Afghanistan in a manpower intensive military is not the future, but nor is the war on terrorism myopic head hunting ISR war.

The future is something that fully leverages the cyber domain and the qualities of air and space power – the global reach, the ability to compress time so that it isn’t equal to distance, the non-kinetic elements of military defeat – but this is not, I repeat not, anywhere close to what today’s Air Force really is, nor could be.  I say could be because if U.S. defense is going to be defined by the ability to either defend against or defeat China, we certainly aren’t going to do it with boots; or F-22s and a new bomber.

So Gates, what’s his gig?  Washington is filled with smart people, in fact, Washington is filled with smart people who make a living telling us how hopeless Washington is.  But as for the future of U.S. national security?  I just don’t see the Gates’ era as exceptional, nor any trend that he put in place that changes the everyman for himself culture.

Are the Marines Landing on the Beach of a new Cold War?

Nothing quite says the start of a new war than Marines hitting the beach, so the news this week that the first of 2,500 Marines hit the beach in northwest Australia put some substance to the Obama administration’s declaration of a “pivot” to Asia.

The shift – refocusing U.S. foreign and military policy away from its fixation on the Middle East – is partly a public relations ploy, partly “strategic,” but there is also a cynical element: The national security establishment and big spenders yearn for an old school problem to tackle, one where classic geopolitics rule and Red is Red.  The only problem – the only problem? – is that declaring China the next enemy more likely makes it so.  And that’s idiotic.

The good news here is that after declaring its eternal commitment to Afghanistan and the terror war, the pivot can and should be read as the true desire on the part of the establishment to extricate the United States from the Middle East quagmire.  I’m not saying that the U.S. will give up on fighting terrorism or abandon Israel; the United States has declared everything from al Qaeda to the Arctic strategic and seems to be unable to have it any other way.  But the last big declaration of national military strategy — that everything was being dropped to focus singularly on counter-insurgency (COIN) and irregular warfare – seems to be in the process of being supplanted.  Not only didn’t COIN sit well with many traditionalists, but it also didn’t provide enough script to engage the entire cast.  After all, how many ships and bombers are needed to muck about in the jungle?

So, the United States and Australia are beefing up their cooperation under the guise of joint exercises, and there’s even talk of stationing ships or submarines down under.  The Australian government assures its public that the U.S. won’t have permanent bases in the country, as if somehow that’s the issue.

Meanwhile, Guam is being stuffed with more air, naval, and Marine forces; and Japan is fully wired into the anti-North Korea-cum-China missile defense shield.  Military cooperation with Indonesia is on the rise; the Singapore Defense Minister is in Washington this week; a submarine and tender are publicly in port in Malaysia.  Other Asian nations are being enlisted in the nascent efforts to “contain” China.

There’s a scene is George Bush the elder’s book with Brent Scowcroft – A World Transformed – where the two end their chapter on Desert Storm, the first war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991: after only four days of ground combat, the Republican Guards have been routed, a ceasefire has been agreed to at Safwan, the coalition has triumphed.  The next chapter gets back to the situation in a crumbling Soviet Union, and it is abundantly clear that the two couldn’t wait to get off their Middle East detour and get back to the men’s work that they were so familiar with.

“The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay,” President Obama declared last November when he visited Australia.  It is a declaration that has a feel of impatience for a president who came to office promising to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and so many other things that he hasn’t been able to maneuver.

Here to stay is so much more homey and stable, and in the pivot to Asia – to China – Obama can collect together many happy allies:  In Washington, the Congress, think tanks, lobbyists, and opinion-shapers are all game.  The new cyber warriors can hardly wait to get to their keyboards.  In the U.S. military, there is a strong Pacific legacy and institutional bloc, even after 10 plus years of war they are far more powerful than the junior varsity at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the rather unglamorous command headquarters stuck in Florida and under lock-down in Qatar.  Success at pivoting takes the heat off of the white hot poker of Iran.  It even disses those arrogant collective annoying do-gooders in Europe, making it clear that America is a global power while they are, as Rumsfeld once said, just old.  And in the public mind, though I can’t prove it, China – even if it might be confusing why we would pick a fight or militarize our relationship with them – represents a more dignified and clear-cut peer competitor.  The Middle East in contrast is so messy and unresolved.

One can write, almost without thinking twice, the words that the Asian-Pacific region offers greater threats and opportunities to American security (and economic) interests than do Iraq or Afghanistan.  Serious thinkers and armchair strategists are writing variations of this more and more frequently.  China’s nukes, China’s economy, China’s spreading influence beyond Asia; it’s all there the ingredients for a good-ole Cold War.

The Crisis of Our Military

What ruins it for me in Bob Scales’ eloquent op-ed – “Too many wars, too few U.S. soldiers” — in The Washington Post about the Afghanistan shooting and the state of our Army (and armed forces) is that retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales also makes an unsatisfying argument on behalf of his institution and a military solution.

“A succession of national leaders,” Scales says, “fail to recognize that combat units, particularly infantry, just wear out.”  Then it’s the media to blame for “trying to make some association between the terrible crime of this sergeant and the Army’s inability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.”

Then, the conclusion: “the real institutional culprit is the decade-long exploitation and cynical overuse of one of our most precious and irreplaceable national assets: our close combat soldiers and Marines.”

I agree whole-heartedly with Scales, who I count as friend and colleague, that the young soldiers shoulder an “enormously disproportionate share of emotional stress.”  And I believe something is very wrong.

Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap also has something to say about the Afghan shootings.  I received this press release from Duke University, where the former deputy judge advocate general hangs his hat these days, offering up Dunlap for interviews:

The “news tip” extensively quotes Dunlap making an argument for a “major revamping of Afghan policy” and promoting his hobby-horse of what he calls the scourge of “lawfare.”  Dunlap concludes:

“… given that it is virtually impossible to root out every potential rogue from the millions who serve in uniform, military planners may want to rethink the manpower-intensive strategies that have come to dominate American military policy, and especially counterinsurgency doctrine in which winning hearts and minds is said to be essential.”

I imagine that retired Air Force major general Dunlap, whom I always enjoy, isn’t suggesting a rethink in the same way Scales is.  To the airmen, manpower-intensive means boots on the ground, in other words, an argument for more airpower.

So:  More Army?  More Air Force?  A new, new counterinsurgency doctrine to fight forever wars?  Those are our choices?

I come away hungry for a non-institutional, non-Washington oriented societal argument.  Dunlap calls for “military planners” to rethink, which in the inferiority complex of the air force institution is code for the dominant ground service officers, the Army; Scales seems to only be able to name “national leaders” and “the media” for what he calls “exploitation and cynical overuse.”

One area where Dunlap is inadvertently wrong and Scales is right though is that there are not “millions who serve in uniform.”  Well, not in the way Dunlap means that there are millions.

There are technically just over two million in the active duty and reserves; but the military is nowhere like it was during the draft days of Vietnam or the true mobilization of millions in World War II or the Korean War.  And within that two million who serve are a far smaller number of deployable military personnel.  And within that few hundred thousand who deploy into Afghanistan (or did into Iraq) are a far smaller number who leave the (relative) safety fortresses to fight.  I know out there somewhere are some facts to back me up – that only a scandalously small percentage of all people in uniform have even ever deployed once to those actual countries; in other words, most do in fact shoulder the majority of the burden.

No one has cynically created this circumstance, but the military institution is well aware of this now ten-year old reality.  Firepower has become so concentrated and networks have become so large and ubiquitous that only tiny numbers of soldiers are ‘needed’ on the front lines compared to Scales’ days.  But as Scales and Dunlap both know, firepower isn’t what is going to win these wars, any more than a larger military or an air force/special operations dominated head-hunting campaign would.

We all share the blame for this ethical quagmire.  We cede war-making to an increasingly isolated professional caste, we cede to them the design and makeup of  the military, we facilitate and tolerate what Scales calls “exploitation” of a few as long as the dangers are kept away from us, and we don’t pay attention until our well-oiled and distant machine has a breakdown or an industrial accident.  And once the breakdown occurs – the rogue soldier, the errant bomb, the Abu Ghraib – we expect the floor managers and professionals to fix the machine.  To paraphrase someone: We are the machine.

Here! Here! Everything you need to know about Afghanistan shooting!!!

I wasn’t planning to write about the Afghanistan shooting, don’t want to write that kind of a blog.

But it’s kind of difficult to get away from the incident, and the truth of the matter is, why bother to blog at all if no one’s going to read it?  Which is to say: this minute’s views/comments are what matters in the 24/7 blah, blah, blah of a world, the mainstream news leading the pack with the greatest resources.  The corrosion of our discourse about everything, even serious things, is proven by the universal demand of who can move the quickest, which will be the go-to news service, who will produce new details, which will turn the cleverest phrase, which gets the best quote.  Heck, this blog might even get read because I’m clever in saying I’m already sick of it.

So, to dispense with it all, here’s all you need to know: If you were against the Afghanistan war, this is proof and affirmation; if you’re in favor of the war, this is just a hiccup on the way to promising progress. What more is there?  If you think the military kills indiscriminately, you still think it; if you don’t, you’re mad at all of those who think that the military kills indiscriminately.

If you’re Afghan, you’re outraged.  You’re probably not outraged if 16 school girls were gunned down in a dispute over family or tribal honor, you’re not outraged over corruption or human rights in general.  But you didn’t have anything better to do today anyhow.

If you hate the United States or hate Obama, this is reason to hate.

If you’re Foreign Policy or some other Washington-establishment rag, you do the requisite round-up of comments, as if anything is outside the proscribed scripts.

If you’re RT.com (TV-Novosti) or some other news organization that loves to hate the United States, you write a headline like “Several drunk Marines behind bloodbath, laughed on shooting-spree, burned corpses.”  Some Afghan eyewitness said it.

Publicly, on the web, on Twitter, the President, Secretary of Defense, NATO head, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, CENTCOM, and ISAF on down to the janitor at the Pentagon all apologized and expressed their condolences.

Obama even called Karzai and called the incident “tragic and shocking.”  The White House released a picture.  That kind of makes it a crisis, elevates it and debases it all at the same time.  By noon I imagine the information warfare maven will be predicting and wagering on the state of the battle of hearts and minds and selling your theory of what needs to be done.  Scratch that, they were on it yesterday.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai from his vehicle outside the Jane E. Lawton Community Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on March 11, 2012. UPI/Pete Souza/White House.

Iraqi WMD: Nine Years Ago, One of My Proudest Journalism Moments

A Hazy Target: Before going to war over weapons of mass destruction, shouldn’t we be sure Iraq has them?

William M. Arkin

Los Angeles Times, March 09, 2003

 

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt — For all their differences, proponents and opponents of war with Iraq agree on one thing: The paramount threat posed by Saddam Hussein is his possession of chemical and biological weapons.

“The one respect that we think most about and worry most about is an enemy with weapons of mass destruction,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz said last month. Opponents of war with Iraq have much the same view.

Administration leaders argue that only war can smoke out Hussein’s hidden biochemical capabilities. Doves argue that we must rely on inspections because attacking Hussein could provoke him to use chemical or biological weapons; if Israel were hit, they warn, the result could be nuclear war. By different routes, the two sides arrive at an almost obsessive focus on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons.

Each side has practical as well as principled reasons for doing so. For the administration, equating chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons — and warning that, sooner or later, Iraq’s weapons will find their way into terrorists’ hands — has become a way of making the case that war with Iraq is essential to protecting American lives at home.

For those who oppose the U.S. position, treating chemical and biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction akin to nuclear weapons justifies diplomacy and brinkmanship because of the seeming horrendous consequences of failure.

The question is whether these weapons in fact form a foundation sufficient to support all the weight being placed on it.

Instructively, the one place where policy is not being driven by the focus on chemical and biological weapons is inside the American armed forces.

For one thing, while not dismissing the seriousness of chemical and biological warfare, most field commanders are reasonably confident they can handle any such attacks Hussein can mount. For another, they understand all too well the mass destruction a full-scale war might inflict.

Moreover, most know that, after nearly four months of renewed weapons inspections by the United Nations and the most intensive effort in the history of the U.S. intelligence community, American analysts and war planners are far from certain that chemical and biological weapons even exist in Iraq’s arsenal today.

Incredible as it may seem, given all the talk by the administration — including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s discourse last week about continuing Iraqi deception — there is simply no hard intelligence of any such Iraqi weapons.

There is not a single confirmed biological or chemical target on their lists, Air Force officers working on the war plan say.

No one doubts that Iraq has consistently lied and cheated about its proscribed arms capabilities. This is a country that has used chemical weapons against Iran and against its own population, a country that fired missiles at Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1991.

And the rundown of Iraqi weapons that remain incompletely accounted for since the 1991 Gulf War is daunting: 6,500 bombs filled with chemical agents, 400 bombs filled with biological agents, 31,500 chemical munitions, 550 artillery shells loaded with mustard gas, 8,500 liters of anthrax.

Moreover, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency analysts believe that Hussein’s forces could launch two types of short-range missiles, rockets or artillery that are capable of carrying chemical agents. The analysts say Iraqi aircraft or unmanned drones could mount sprayers to disperse chemicals or biological agents.

Analysts also think it possible for Iraqi commandos to penetrate coalition lines with small quantities of these weapons.

And U.S. intelligence has received reports that Special Republican Guard units, as well as secret police and security services charged with defending the regime, have been given bio-chem protective gear. President Bush, in his Feb. 8 radio address, said the administration had intelligence “that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons.”

“We cannot rule out of course that Saddam might try in some kind of desperation to use chemical or biological weapons,” National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said, echoing the administration line.

Yet, in fact, there is as much uncertainty as certainty about Iraq’s capabilities, as well as about the military effectiveness of any 11th-hour resort to chemical and biological weapons. So much of what the U.S. believes is based upon Iraq’s history, not knowledge of current conditions.

Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said as much when he told Congress last month that U.S. beliefs were “based on … past patterns and availability … that he will in fact employ them.”

But the thinking that lies behind such statements when made by military professionals is quite different from that underlying the pronouncements of Rice and Wolfowitz.

When Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, the Army’s top biological and chemical defense commander, says the United States must assume Hussein thinks “it’s OK to use chemical agents, because he’s done it,” the general is simply engaging in the kind of worst-case thinking that professional soldiers are trained to do.

“What does he plan to do? I have no idea,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Reeves, Army program officer for chemical and biological defense, said at a Pentagon news conference last month.

Military leaders like Doesburg and Reeves do not mean to suggest that chemical and biological weapons are the battlefield equivalent of nuclear weapons. And they certainly do not mean to suggest such weapons are so uniquely horrific that they should drive the nation’s policy decisions — either toward or away from war.

Among other things, using chemical and biological weapons effectively is so difficult that this alone has always been considered a major impediment for Iraq. The weapons are unpredictable. Weather conditions are a major factor. Chemical and biological agents also have to avoid exposure to heat, light or severe cold.

When U.N. weapons inspectors were in Iraq during the 1990s, they found it had turned toward unmanned ground vehicles and sprayers as platforms for delivering chemical and biological weapons because Iraqi engineers could not master the technology for delivering such weapons in missiles or artillery shells; loaded into the warheads, the chemical and biological material was usually incinerated when the warhead exploded.

Moreover, “it takes a lot of chemicals to have a significant effect on the battlefield,” Doesburg told Bloomberg News. “We don’t suspect he has the stockpile.”

According to war planners, three aspects of U.S. military strategy are specifically related to preventing the use of such weapons once open hostilities begin.

First, initiating the use of force across all fronts, with simultaneous air and ground operations, will communicate what Wolfowitz calls “the inevitability” of Hussein’s demise. “No one wants to be the last one to die for Saddam Hussein,” he said.

Second, the war plan itself favors smaller and more highly dispersed formations to limit exposure to the kinds of brute-force chemical attacks that occurred in Iraq’s war with Iran.

Third, early air and special operations assaults, particularly in western Iraq, will seek to disrupt any potential attacks on Israel.

Despite so little hard evidence of Iraq’s capabilities, U.S. troops have been vaccinated, trained, equipped and dressed to prepare for chemical and biological war. For military units, all this is no more than prudent planning.

For the rest of us, we must take care that apprehension about weapons of mass destruction — whether generated from hawks or from doves — does not become a substitute for thinking through the justification to go to war, a decision that could have consequences for years to come.

There have been recent reports that U.S. Marines in Kuwait were literally using “sentinel” chickens to aid in the early detection of chemical and biological weapons.

“I just have to tell you from personal experience,” said Reeves, “having had a great-uncle with a chicken farm, chickens are spectacularly nervous animals. They will literally worry themselves to death.”

Exactly.