Commentary Magazine


I . . . Agree with Michael Scheuer

Gabriel Schoenfeld has done a masterly job of dissecting the bizarre world view of retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer. But today Scheuer has actually written an article that I for the most part agree with. It’s called “Break Out the Shock and Awe,” and in it he cautions against the notion that “the U.S. military should rely more on covert operations and special forces to fight counterinsurgencies and irregular wars.” Only conventional forces, he argues, can deliver a lasting victory.

The reality is a little more complex. When they have skilled allied forces to fight alongside, American special operators can in fact deliver outsize results. That’s what happened in El Salvador in the 1980′s, when 55 Special Forces trainers helped defeat a communist insurgency. But in the absence of large, competent, conventional forces-and they have been notably lacking in Afghanistan and Iraq during most of the time we have fought there-special operators cannot magically defeat our enemies.

But even when delivering generally sound analysis, Scheuer goes astray. He writes:

Anyone who reads works on the recommended book lists of the Army chief of staff and the Marines Corps commandant — books by such writers as Stephen Ambrose, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Dwight Eisenhower — will find little indication that wars can won by clandestine and special forces. Only Max Boot and his brethren at the Weekly Standard, Commentary and the National Review preach such nonsense as gospel.

I cannot speak for everyone at The Weekly Standard, COMMENTARY, or National Review, but off the top of my head (and speaking as the author of a book that is on the reading lists of both the Marine commandant and the chief of naval operations) I am hard put to think of any contributors to those publications who in fact “preach such nonsense as gospel.” Quite the reverse. Those publications have been supporting a surge of troops in Iraq precisely on the theory that special operators can’t do it alone.

Along with many of my “brethren” such as Fred Kagan, I have repeatedly warned against the special operations fallacy. For instance, in my Commentary article “How Not to Get Out of Iraq,” I wrote

If Special Operations Forces could not prevent the establishment under their noses of a Taliban-style “Islamic state” in Baquba during the past year, how much luck would they have operating from Kuwait or the Kurdish region, as suggested by proponents of this approach? It would be like trying to police Boston from Washington, D.C.

The major proponents of a commando-centric approach to fighting terrorists are not, in fact, to be found on the Right, especially now that Donald Rumsfeld is no longer at the Pentagon. They are primarily Democrats.  Some advocate this approach out of sheer ignorance; others do so out of political expediency.  All want to convince themselves that we can pull most of our troops out of Iraq and still keep Al Qaeda at bay. Scheuer would be well advised to aim his rhetorical fire a bit more carefully.