America May Wave the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Flag Again

<i> Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. </i>

Are the wraps about to come off our military? That may seem a strange question when the big news seems to be that “peace is breaking out all over.” But, contradictory as it may seem, it is this very fact that may prompt the United States to take a more aggressive military posture toward those who would do us harm.

It has been a long time coming--so long, in fact, that many of our political and military leaders may not even realize that any such wraps exist. With few exceptions, most have come of age since the Korean War, and their entire government careers have been spent on the strategic defensive. And with that strategic posture has come a defensive mind-set.

Such a defensive mind-set is a common phenomenon at the tactical level: Leave soldiers in defensive positions too long, and they begin to scare themselves to death. Every rustle of the wind sends shivers up their spines, and a single enemy sniper can paralyze an entire battalion. Instead of taking action to eliminate the threat, they hold back, convinced that any such attempt would only make matters worse and trigger a terrible retribution.

Over the years just such a mind-set developed at the strategic level in Washington. Strategic decision-makers in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon had been so riveted with the need to avoid even the remotest chance of a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union that they allowed the United States of America, the greatest military power on the face of the Earth, to be humiliated and embarrassed time and again by Soviet “clients” like the two-bit Syrian-backed terrorists in Beirut.


The essence of discouraging such effrontery, said Lord Palmerston, the renowned 19th-Century British statesman, lies in an overwhelming response to an insignificant action. It was said in his day that if you did harm to a British subject, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even next week but sooner or later, without fail, something bad would happen to you. Great Britain went so far as to send an entire army to Khartoum to avenge the death of its general, Charles (Chinese) Gordon, in 1885 at the hands of Arab fundamentalist fanatics.

The United States adopted the opposite approach. Instead of an overwhelming response to an insignificant action, our policy has been an insignificant response to an overwhelming action. When Arab fundamentalist fanatics murdered 241 American servicemen in 1983 in Beirut when they blew up the Marine barracks there, not only did we not dispatch an army to avenge their deaths, we turned tail and ran. And when these fanatics beat one of our sailors to death, tortured and killed our CIA station chief and kidnaped an American lieutenant colonel serving with the U.N. force there, we again did nothing. To avenge their deaths might have offended the Syrians, and offending the Syrians would risk a confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Critics have charged that this lack of action by the United States is evidence that the country’s military power is incompetent. Others have claimed that it indicates that America has lost its will. But such conclusions are off the mark. The real reason for inaction has been the fear of risking a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union.

That’s why the 1986 raid on Libya and last week’s shoot-down of two Libyan aircraft are so revealing. There is a strategic message there that has not been well remarked. Let an erstwhile Soviet client slip out from under the Soviet nuclear umbrella and the United States will not hesitate to take strong military action. That’s why Syria must have felt a chill when the Soviet Union pledged its help in locating and punishing the terrorists who blew up Pam Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21. If the Soviet Union withdrew its nuclear shield from Syria, the terrorists there, like their brethren in Libya, may well become fair game for retaliatory action.

Similarly, if the Soviet Union and the United States really do work out a deal to effectively ban chemical weapons, it will be not only the Libyan plant at Rabta that is vulnerable to preemptive attack. As they eliminate their chemical arsenals, the United States and the Soviet Union will have a mutual interest in ensuring and enforcing chemical non-proliferation around the globe.

It was fear of bringing the nuclear-armed Soviet Union into the Korean War that prompted the United States to eschew its traditional offensive military strategy and adopt the strategic defensive. Now, almost 40 years later, these fears are abating as “peace is breaking out all over.” As a result, the United States may be ready to untie the yellow ribbon and once again run up its rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me” battle flag.