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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Two-Wars Theory

Once it was one of those Pentagon plans that Senate Armed Services Committee elders never mentioned in public. Because, as a stunned young reporter discovered ages ago, they didn't even know about it.

Once it was one of those Pentagon plans that Senate Armed Services Committee elders never mentioned in public. Because, as a stunned young reporter discovered ages ago, they didn’t even know about it.

Now it is splashed big-time atop Page One of The New York Times, where concerned senators and even would-be evildoers can read all about it.

It is the Two-Wars Theory, the strategy underlying all Pentagon budgeting _ that America’s military must be capable of fighting and winning two wars simultaneously.

Today’s news is that Pentagon planners _ faced with the never-theorized reality of a long military role in Iraq _ are considering scrapping the two-wars theory and forging a scaled-down strategy for confronting threats in the age of global terrorism. They are considering not just a one-war-plus strategy, but something that may never again be seen as a paint-by-the-numbers picture. The reason: The most urgent component of any new strategy must be a nonstop counterterrorism effort that is not restricted to one nation or even one region.

It is all happening because of an undeclared truth: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his planners realize that they have gotten the U.S. military trapped in a scenario in Iraq that was never covered in the original two-wars budgeting assumption _ a long, grueling battle that is never quite a war. The Iraq conflict is not a war that requires massive air and naval combat capability. Yet it requires massive, long-term U.S. forces on the ground, on guard and in harm’s way.

The challenge is how to budget for threats that will: (1) Protect America’s homeland from terrorists; (2) Keep America capable of fighting a war in North Korea, China or anywhere else requiring massive air and sea power; and (3) Provide for a large military ground force in Iraq for a duration that is unknowable except by America’s enemies, who may be as determined as we are to stay the course.

And wait: That, of course, does not include the different sort of problems that a much smaller U.S. force is encountering in Afghanistan, where courageous U.S. troops in unfamiliar mountains are often outnumbered and forced to deal with the worst of terrain and the threat that deadly combat can be just over the next ridge or inside the next cave. They are not only still seeking Osama bin Laden, but are now fighting a born-again Taliban.

This two-wars budget weed-whacking is not a think-tank exercise for bean-counters earning Ph.D.s. It has always been deadly serious. Even back when the senators overseeing Pentagon spending didn’t know it existed.

It was a Two-and-a-Half-Wars Theory when I first discovered the Pentagon budgeting assumption in the small print of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Defense Posture Statement. The Vietnam War was raging, the Soviet threat was menacing and the Pentagon was budgeting on the theory that America must be able to fight a major war in Asia, another in Europe, and a so-called “brushfire” war in either Latin America or the Middle East.

Having just arrived as Newsday’s new Washington correspondent, I assumed that everyone in town but me knew of this two-and-a-half-wars theory. But it seemed a bit bizarre, so I decided to talk to Washington’s wisest elders. I began with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Richard Russell, D-Ga., a military scion who became a Capitol icon and then a building (the Russell Senate Office Building). Russell said he’d never heard of McNamara’s assumption, that it seemed excessive and he’d hold hearings about it. Turned out no one on his committee had heard of it.

Soon Washington solved its dilemma in a very Washington way _ by trimming the theory, but not the dollars. The Pentagon began budgeting on a two-wars assumption; defense spending kept rising.

Now this: There are now 138,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, waging something that is no longer labeled a war, but is surely not a peace. There are just 13,000 fewer troops there now than during the battle that took Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein. The cost of this unwar-nonpeace has soared to a never-theorized $5 billion every month.

Yet there are not enough U.S. troops in Iraq to stop Saudi and other Islamic extremists bent on terror from filtering into Iraq. A recent CIA analysis reportedly warned that Iraq may become a terrorist haven even more menacing to the U.S. homeland than Afghanistan was for al Qaeda _ a laboratory for urban terror.

Unfortunately, there may not be enough theorists in the Pentagon to map a strategy that will bring U.S. troops home without the Afghanistanization of Iraq quickly evolving once they are gone.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)

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