The "Too Hard to Do" Syndrome

by PETER HUESSY October 31, 2016

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and said that before the decade was finished the United States should land a man on the moon and return him to earth.

A year and a half later, in an address at Rice University, known as the "We choose to go to the moon" speech, in front of a large crowd gathered at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962, Kennedy characterized space according to one assessment as "a beckoning frontier" that required an "endeavor within a historical moment of urgency and plausibility" and could be accomplished with a strategy that lived up to America's "pioneering heritage".

Then America was being supremely challenged by the Soviet Union. Moscow had put a man into space following the launch of the satellite Sputnik.

America responded with a nation-wide pursuit of space excellence. In 1969, 7 years after President Kennedy challenged us to do so, America's Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface and six hours later Neil Armstrong took that one amazing giant "leap for mankind".

America has lost some of its faith we had that spring day when our astronauts spoke to us from a distance of 240,000 miles. The government too often does not seem to work anymore. Think Homeland Security and Hurricane Katrina and the Veterans Administration and our veterans. This lack of competence has recently corroded our character and our spirit. It has led us to doubt ourselves. And this doubt may be reflected in the public opinion polls where Americans by a wide margin think the country is going into the wrong direction. 

On top of this we have had for nearly half a century a chorus of American critics who have claimed America is not a good force in the world. Those voices have become stronger the longer we seem to be grinding down in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.

After World War II, the critics of American power were not as prominent as they are today. William Appleton Williams claimed the US started the war against Japan and then the Cold War. Similarly, one famous historian wrote that President Truman created an atmosphere of "crisis and cold war", and had invented a threat from the Soviet Union, and "established a climate of hysteria about communism" which allowed "more repressive actions at home".

Though we saved South Korea from communist tyranny, the most widely used text book in American high schools today declared the Korean War was a "misguided, immoral decision to go to war".

Twenty years later when we withdraw from South Vietnam and a Congress cut off all military assistance to the country, the struggle to keep free Saigon and the 45 million people in South Vietnam was characterized as "the first clear defeat to the global American empire formed after World War II."

The near impeachment of a President amid Watergate further corroded our sense of self-confidence. Then the Ford administration's "WIN" ("Whip Inflation Now") buttons were distributed to ostensibly deal with inflation, hardly instilling confidence in the country's ability to get our economy going again. Then came further hikes in gasoline prices under the next administration, including gas lines and rationing, further undermined our confidence in our country.

The oil industry became an easy target to blame for OPEC's price increases. And of course there was the seeming national impotence represented by American diplomats "held hostage" for 444 days in Iran.

In his first press conference as President, Ronald Reagan was asked whether he would continue to support "détente" and "peaceful co-existence". To a press corps that audibly gasped in reaction, the newly elected President answered "No, not if such policies continued to be just a one way street." And if there was any doubt whether a turn-around in tone and action was coming, the administration summarily fired the air-traffic controllers who had gone on strike-and ironically was one of the few unions to have endorsed the administration's election.

We are now having an interesting debate over the legacy of President Reagan. Did "Peace through Strength" work or was it largely a chimera, where the Soviet Union was bound to disintegrate and it was simply a matter of time before it did. In this view, no American "push" was necessary to end what Reagan had called the "evil empire".

Part of this narrative includes the idea that increases in the defense budget largely lead to foreign misadventures, often with no obvious resolution one way or the other, undermining support not only for a bigger defense budgets but the use of American military power as well. A recent   

The answer to such a question is very important. Important voices are now being heard on both sides of this argument. America is having a debate now whether our military needs significantly more money or whether restraint exercised through tight budgets is a better prescription for America' security needs going forward.

I think a new book may give us some key insights into what role a strong defense played in the end of the Cold War and it may help us decide (1) what the US role in the world should be and (2) what level we should have for defense spending.

In a new book, "Inside the Cold War From Marx to Reagan" long time national security council staff expert Sven Kraemer writes about what we face today: "More than at any time since Ronald Reagan's new Cold War strategy of ‘peace and freedom' and ‘peace through strength' achieved the collapse of the Soviet Union's totalitarian Communist ideology, regime and empire a quarter century ago, America and its democratic allies are confronted with critical issues of peace and war, of freedom and tyranny. In the face of these new dangers, a principled security policy must be developed to ‘provide for the common defense' and ‘secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity'".

Any such effort I believe has to start with America recovering its sense of purpose and "can do spirit" epitomized by the 1969 "Moon landing" and other great endeavors of the country.

To get to that place requires political leaders not only to proclaim what we need to do but how we need to do it. But this also means probably pushing aside the song of those who often complain the United States is no exceptional country, need not achieve great things and simply needs to roll along with some cosmic "arc of history" or "tide of events" that somehow, we are often assured, will end up with everyone in a happy place.

We face today four particularly troublesome and interconnected security challenges. We first have Russia, China, North Korea and Iran which our Secretary of Defense has correctly identified as America's gravest enemies.

Second, these countries work cooperatively especially on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology. China's nuclear proliferation activities are particularly troublesome in this regard as former White House security staff expert and former USAF Secretary Tom Reed detailed in his "The Nuclear Express".

Third, parallel to these bad countries operate a network of terror organizations which operate much like criminal cartels. But their activities while fueled in part by drugs, weapons and counterfeiting, are deadly. Iran in particular is the grand-daddy of terror masters. The Mullah's work with both Sunni and Shia groups including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. North Korea, while officially no longer on the state department official sponsor of terror list, their cooperative work with Iran and Syria on missiles and nuclear technology is more than enough evidence to classify Pyongyang as a "terror master".

And fourth, the prize China, Russia and Iran seek-in concert or separately--- are the oil and gas resources of the Persian Gulf, Caucasus and Trans Caucasus. China seeks to control who buys while Russian seeks to control who sells oil and gas. Iran has often publicly proclaimed its goal of replacing the Saudi monarchy as the "Keeper of the Islamic Shrines" in Mecca and Medina.

Iran could well be a useful agent to secure that prize, with North Korea the funnel to supply the needed nuclear weaponry. And the Iranian associated terror groups could very well target the Gulf state governments as they have in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

And these three countries--Iraq, Iran and Yemen---could very well be the key three pieces of the geographic puzzle from whence subversion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will occur.   

Will America react in time? Will we show resolve?  

Unfortunately, many Americans have adopted the narrative of Mr. Stephen Kinzer whose "All the Shah's Men" blames America and our "legacy of colonial blunders" for the rise of Iran and terrorism in the Middle East.

Others actually seek to embrace Iran as a geostrategic partner in Middle East affairs.

Others while not ready to embrace Tehran, shy away from challenging Iran and its terror partners, seeking instead accommodation and engagement.

Now after a decade and a half of war, Americans are naturally reluctant to find anymore overseas dragons to slay. Even when confronted with evidence that foreign powers attacked us on 9-11 or the Khobar Towers or the USS Cole, the American public could be forgiven for declaring that going after state sponsors of terror is "Too hard to do".

Yes, hard to do. Like landing an American on the moon.

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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