Politics & Policy

Dead Ahead

Mark Helprin wants to win the war.

Events in Iraq bring home, with near-daily frequency, the mess we are in. To acknowledge this isn’t to say that we were wrong in going to war. But the daily news reports do instruct us in the need for hard strategic thought of a kind that we are unlikely to get from the president or from Senator Kerry, whose perspectives are circumscribed by immediate concerns.

The challenge we face is brilliantly addressed by Mark Helprin of the Claremont Institute in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books. What he tells us is something we osmotically know simply by looking hard at the scene in the Middle East and staring down into the Axis of Evil pool, where the long shadow of China can, however faintly, be discerned. What Mr. Helprin reminds us is that in fact we are at war against terrorism and that the appropriate mobilization to fight such a war is a whole dreamland away. Since launching the war in Iraq, we have conquered Baghdad and deposed Saddam. In the eighteen months since the war began, we have every day faced what seems an infinite elongation of the task at hand. There are more terrorists today than there were a year ago. The mobilization of terrorist enclaves continues. The looming presence in the Middle East isn’t the U.S. military, it is an Iran that seems to be engaged in a contest with North Korea as to which nation can more quickly attain nuclear weaponry.

Mr. Helprin begins with a postulate, which is that the United States has the resources to fight back. But to do this requires a huge investment in military and paramilitary enterprises. The good news is that we have the wherewithal; the discomfiting news, that sacrifices will be needed, and, above all, the will.

Helprin gives us an economic perspective.

The United States produces about $11 trillion worth of goods and services annually. We allocate $400 billion to military spending. That amounts to 3.6 percent of the GDP.

By contrast, during the peacetime years between 1940 and 2000, we spent 5.7 percent of the GDP on defense. In the war years, we spent 13.3 percent on defense. By the last years of the Second World War, we were spending, on the military, as much as 38.5 percent of the GNP. To put the same level of effort into the war on terrorism that we put into World War II, we would need, for military spending, $4.2 trillion. That’s ten times the existing budget.

How to deploy such a force?

Mr. Helprin accosts the question of Iran. “The sure way to strip Iran of its nuclear potential would be clear: issuance of an ultimatum stating that we will not allow a terrorist state, the legislature of which chants like a robot for our demise, to possess nuclear weapons.” We would clear the Persian Gulf of Iranian naval and coastal defense forces. Cut corridors across Iran that would be free of effective anti-aircraft capability. Bring carriers to the Gulf and expeditionary air forces to Saudi Arabia, and prepare long-range heavy bombers here and in Guam. “If then our conditions were unmet, we could destroy every nuclear, ballistic-missile, military-research, and military technical facility in Iran, with the promise that were the prohibited activities to resume and/or relocate we would destroy completely the economic infrastructure of the country.”

Mr. Helprin, the author of A Soldier of the Great War and Winter’s Tale, is a graduate of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and has served in the Israeli infantry and air force. He was an adviser on defense and foreign relations to Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential campaign.

Mr. Helprin’s vision is informed by the catastrophic consequences of modern weaponry. We can’t be indifferent to movements in any country which are designed to accumulate the kind of power which could kill Americans by the millions. We did nothing, for two decades, to declare ourselves at war with the poison of armed anti-Americanism. The terrorists, “who, contrary to the common wisdom, always have an address, could strike, and strike, and strike again — our embassies, navy, and largest city — and not suffer a single punitive expedition.” September 11 changed that, but we haven’t learned that an effort hugely greater in scale and more refined in conception is required to signal our determination to take on the disease wherever it is nurtured.

“What is it worth to be properly prepared for a smallpox epidemic that might kill scores of millions of Americans, or perhaps 100 million? . . . And to preserve as a principle and in actuality both American security and independence? Merely as a matter of honor, with all calculations aside, it is worth any material expense to remove terrorist hands from the control of American destiny.”

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