America's Margin For Error
By Terrell E. Arnold

To justify a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told the Congress before the invasion that America has entered a new world. In this new world, he said, "our margin of error is notably different." In the context of his remarks the apparent potential errors on his mind concerned possible failures to move speedily and decisively on the pending military attack on Iraq or on future military actions against al Qaida and other terrorists. "We have entered a new security environment," said Rumsfeld, "one that is dramatically different than the one we grew accustomed to over the past half century."
In the abstract, that statement is certainly true, but our entry into this new world did not just happen. The changes that brought it about occurred over a period of decades with developments such as the slow decay of the communist system, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, large increases in world population, growth in poverty, hunger and disease, and the global emergence of present patterns of terrorism. The "dramatic difference" is the new uncertainty, fear and policy confusion created by the Bush administration doctrine of pre-emptive war.
Terrorism was already a thorn in our side in the 1970s. It became a bigger one in the 1980s. Even though the number of terrorist attacks declined through the 1990s, compared with the 1980s, our terrorism worries grew because we saw the potential grow for terrorist acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). However, while we were struggling with the horror of possible WMD events, the 9-11 planners and terrorists showed us that massive shock and destruction can be delivered without WMDS.
Attacks in the past two decades also have shown that the enemy is most likely not to be a country. The enemy could be anywhere, could use the most destructive devices that science or ingenuity might contrive and money can buy, but is more likely to use conventional explosives or so-called IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Moreover, the enemy is likely to be in complete charge of when, where, how and why such an attack might be delivered. By and large, terrorists are most likely to hit softer relatively unprotected targets.
US leadership does not appear to understand this picture, because Rumsfeld's statement and the whole neoconservative hawk fixation on attacking Iraq show all too plainly that the Bush team believes we can beat terrorism globally with unprovoked attacks on specific countries. The track record so far is not promising.
The Margin For Error
Rumsfeld did us a favor by stating the problem in terms of possibility for error. However, "margin for error", our zone for making mistakes without severe consequences, is a better term. Rumsfeld and those around him are thinking about how we militarily position or pre-position worldwide to deal with the next threat. The tragedy of his statement and the neoconservative hawk mindset is that they do not come close to appreciating America's true margin for error, either now or in the coming decades.
Our Present Situation
The United States is a superpower because of its nuclear weapons and other sophisticated weaponry, not because of the numbers or the readiness of its forces. Rather reliance on National Guard and reserve personnel to eke out force structures in time of need means that both readiness and numbers are constant constraints. Whether responding to those constraints or just ideologically wedded to the idea, Rumsfeld and his personal following are driving military service leadership up the wall by touting a lean, mean fighting machine that goes in on the heels of standoff weaponry shock and awe attacks that leave little work for the troops. That indeed was the actual Iraq War II scenario, but only for the first few days. Iraqi developments since May 1, 2003 have shown major flaws in that design.
On the ground Iraq is a mess. Sources familiar with the situation say there are not enough people, with the right skills, in the right places, with the right mission tasks. As the Coalition chief administrator, L. Paul Bremer, has discovered, those shortcomings cannot be corrected fast enough to stay ahead of creeping chaos. Nearly a victim of that chaos himself in a recent assassination attempt, Bremer's main problem may be that he will not be given enough time. Iraqi guerrilla attacks, Shiia and Kurdish political maneuvers, and a recently awakened Sunni minority appear to be spreading panic in and around the White House.
The boost in domestic popularity provided by taking Saddam, quite possibly by bargaining with his Kurdish keepers, appears to have contained that panic for now. However, in Iraq the main US postures are contradictory; the process of handing over governance to Iraqis is being confounded by a US political need for speedy results, while the military approach is being driven by constant insurgent attacks into an ever more harsh posture. Unless a handover acceptable to Iraqis can be carried out, and unless the killing stops, a pall hangs over Bush re-election chances in 2004.
The striking demonstration in this situation is that the United States simply does not have enough forces on active duty to meet the obligations set by the combined neo-con agendas of the War on Terrorism and the continuing war in Iraq. That this same group is even now setting its sights on Syria and Iran is truly dim witted. The United States does not have much room for error here. Rather, the Bush team practices of pre-emptive strikes, unilateral action, and the infantile "you are either with us or against us" definitions of major power relationships irritate and frighten others, and isolate the United States, thereby increasing pressure on limited resources, and reducing the margin for error.
Our Basic Situation
How potent is the superpower? The US, the world's third most populous country, has only about 4.5 percent of the world population. That means more than 95% of the people and a much higher percentage of the problems with the human condition are outside the United States. Estimates vary, but in terms of energy and other vital production materials, the US is using as much as 25% of key resources such as oil to maintain its lifestyle and export parts of it to others. We can live this way for some indefinite time through imports of raw materials and finished goods, supporting technologies, and bright people. We can pay for all of that by exports of advanced technologies and products or services, going into debt abroad, and, of course, we can live to some extent off the rewards of offshore investments.
In long-range economic terms, however, our system, while engaging, is vulnerable. It is engaging because it is so productive of innovation and wealth, and on that basis it has prospered and grown even through times of progressively declining domestic resources. Increasingly we have substituted technical achievements for physical resources. We can continue to do that, but the system is vulnerable because its prosperity and growth involve deep and vital interdependencies with the rest of the world
The US miracle cannot be sustained without those connections. Can we sustain those connections by peaceful and cooperative means? If not, can we enforce them by coercive and military ones? Our margin for error is defined by the challenges we must meet to sustain our status and position. Overall we cannot forget for a moment that ours - like everybody else's-is an economy of flows, and we live or die in the stream, because we cannot be independent of it while sustaining our position in it.
Unhappy with the vulnerability in the economy of flows, the hawks in and around the Bush team appear to have decided that as the lone superpower (defined in military terms) we can maintain an umbrella over our markets and vital relationships through exports of military power. Recent steel tariff disputes and the appearance of mad cow disease in the US demonstrate just how out of touch the neo-cons are with the realities of the US situation.
US military power looks awesome, but we are less than 5% of the people. Significant projections of military power are personnel rich. The smartest of our weapons demand large capital investments, as well as human support for upkeep, operations and protection. Thus we can be in many places at once only with token forces. Token forces, as we saw in Somalia and are seeing elsewhere, become handy targets to enemies. Even sizeable forces in Iraq are being constantly harassed, and our casualties since the war are now well beyond wartime losses.
That realization ought to force us to be pragmatic. What we must have are astute applications of Occam's razor, the sharp logical tool of an English Friar that strips the fat off our usual satisfying answers. The answers that cover all the facts in this case make up several bundles. Military power alone will serve only some of our interests in the global system. To broaden the free zone within our margin for error we must judge carefully what super powers we have other than military and work systematically to apply them.
Rumsfeld is probably right in suggesting that our margin for error has changed, but he is mistaken in thinking that unilateral exercises of military power, even his lean, mean fighting machines, can fix the problem. On some levels the situation could be changed to our benefit, if we properly apply the other "super powers," the ones we had in the days right after 9-11. What are the critical sets of facts we must address?
The Nation State System is in Trouble
While there is no official count, an estimated 50 or more states are failed or failing. Seventy-five or more states, including the United States, have resident terrorist groups or individual terrorists, or support groups. Groups in 20 or more states want separate states of their own. Such groups include the Kurds and the Shiites, quite likely the Sunnis in Iraq. Groups in 35-40 states want to overthrow the government, either for regime change or revolutionary reasons. That includes virtually all of the Islamic fundamentalist groups allied with al Qaida.
The overriding problem of the most troubled states is that too many people are poor and underrepresented or not represented at all in their country's decisions. Such shortcomings are often packaged with repression, injustice and other human rights problems. Those defects make the failed and failing states into primary terrorism generators that threaten everybody.
Weapons proliferation is endemic
As the situations show starkly in the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and much of the Sub Sahara region, the proliferation of small arms is a bigger and more imminent threat to many countries than the possible spread of weapons of mass destruction. In Sub-Sahara Africa alone the death toll approaches hundreds of thousands. Proliferation of small arms, mainly from the United States, Western Europe, Israel and Russia, is a global, real time plague. These problems stem largely from the policies of exporting countries, and new victims pay the price every day for gross inattention to a global need for control of such weapons.
Then there are the states that seek or have WMDs. Excluding friendly powers with such capabilities, the perhaps threatening ones include a dozen with nuclear weapons programs, 13 with programs for biological weapons, 16 for chemical weapons, and 28 for ballistic missiles. This cluster (a frequently changing one) includes many of the failed and failing states. The threats against them are largely internal. but these nations are armed against foreign as well as domestic enemies, and most seem attracted to taking their war-making capabilities into space. This threat, in turn, drives the US interest in a missile defense system.
The overarching problem is that in an unstable world any weapon or weapons system becomes an attractive nuisance. For half a century the United Nations has endeavored to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons. The UN has failed because it is totally unrealistic to expect that such powerful bargaining tools can be confined to only the states that already have them.
Possession of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan and Israel, all outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty, has put an elephant in the room for all to see and for anyone who can to copy. North Korea may be on the verge of proving that all a country needs to get on the upside of the club is to show that it has at least one workable weapon and delivery system that threatens South Korea or Japan. Other WMDs, chemical or biological, are loose on the planet because the technologies are unavoidably allied with legitimate applications, easier to apply than nuclear and, in some degree, can be made in most countries.
At present, US leadership is opening the gates of further proliferation by openly seeking to develop more powerful and smaller battlefield weapons using nuclear technology. Perversely, such smaller weapons are likely to be more attractive than the old city levelers to other governments as well as terrorists. US action therefore is giving proliferation new scope if not new life. The margin for error of everyone narrows a little each time any country breaches the weapons proliferation boundary.
Terrorism threatens all countries and peoples
During the past two years terrorist attacks have occurred in at least sixty countries each year. While as many as 16 groups are Islamic, at least half of the Islamic groups are clustered around or have sprung from the Palestine conflict. The majority of terrorist groups are not Muslim, and they tend to remain focused on local agendas. Al Qaida, because it is well funded and has received enormous publicity, is able to recruit new members from countries where no resident terrorist group exists. Individual and unaffiliated dissidents find al Qaida attractive. Countries with Muslim populations have groups with primarily domestic agendas, but al Qaida has appeal to terrorists of all colorations. In part because the United States treats it as the principal terrorist enemy, al Qaida prospers.
The neo-conservative agenda, if played out in this already negative environment, will make us more enemies than we have ever had before. The enemies will not necessarily be in one country prepared to go to war with us. They will be members of groups in various countries, mainly focused on their domestic agendas, but prepared to hook up with effective terrorism delivery systems and support groups such as al Qaida to accomplish their goals. The result is by no means a global network, but the existence of groups that can be influenced and assisted by international terrorist organizations reduces the US margin for error.
US Policies are Major Terrorism Generators
The pockets of terrorism we attack tend to survive and regenerate. By US estimates some 3000 al Qaida terrorists or affiliates have been killed or captured since 9-11. Other estimates suggest, however, that al Qaida largely has recovered from such losses and remains about as powerful as it was before 9-11. The reason for this is simple: We go after the terrorists, not the causes of terrorism. In the states where terrorist groups are most active poverty, hunger, human rights injustices, non-participation, and despair are commonplace. Killing the terrorists who are created by and emerge from this environment does no enduring good. Rather, it makes matters worse because the survivors feel injured by the loss of their only advocates. Moreover, the US, by acquiescing in, often encouraging or assisting military moves by the affected states to suppress their out groups fosters future terrorism, not only against the offending state but against the US.
Out groups such as the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, Indians in Peru and Bolivia, Burmese hill tribals such as the Naga in India and Mianmar, the lesser tribes, ethnic and religious groups in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East are not as communities easily provoked to violence. However, activists of or in favor of them are the sources of terrorism. Those activists are now being heard from in many places, either promising terrorism, complaining about US policy, or sniping at US personnel as shown recently in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. As the situation in Iraq now shows, those activities against US personnel and facilities will multiply. In this arena, US policies and activities already appear to be at the margin of tolerance, and it is by no means likely that local authorities can prevent attacks.
The Middle East Conflict Remains Toxic
The position of Israel in the troubled Middle East must be put and kept in perspective as an area of US policy with major failings and continuing potential for error. While the official position of the Israelis is that they are the perennial victims of terrorism and are only defending themselves, Israeli policies and actions in Palestine are the most active sources of new terrorism in the whole region.
The Road Map for Peace in the Middle East, launched by the US, the UN, the European Union, and Russia, appears unlikely to prosper. A heavy performance burden rests on the Palestinians, but the Map will lead nowhere until the role of the Israelis in creating and sustaining this conflict by taking their property and displacing the Palestinians is squarely admitted and dealt with.
US policies, including economic and military assistance on an exaggerated scale make Israeli excesses possible. That the US ignores Israeli use of US supplied weapons to repress an unarmed population is a major problem. For these and other reasons, the Map, the Geneva accord, or any plan, if it prospers, will require fundamental change in the US-Israeli relationship, because it is a zone in which the US constantly errs.
The Limits of Military Power
Military power can deal with only a few of the challenges the US faces abroad. Unfortunately the military solutions applied abroad typically do the people most in need little if any good. That may well be due in part to the fact that the interests being served are ours, not theirs. Up to now, when we have gone in somewhere militarily our goal has been crisis management, abatement or termination of actual or potential threats to US interests, the end of active conflict, followed by an early exit. Our goal has not been nation building, regime change or even regime improvement, but settlement of immediate military issues, e.g., restoring the peace. Recent vacillation over a peacekeeping role in Liberia was a good/bad example.
Our troops in Iraq are witnesses every day to the fact that the occupation is serving as a wakeup call for dissidents. It is easy to assume that all of the disgruntled people in Iraq are former Baathists and Saddam adherents. However, Saddam suppressed a good deal of inter-tribal and ethnic/religious strife that has now resurfaced and will have to work itself off. Our effort to maintain peace puts our people in the middle of those conflicts; in addition our people have to face the risks associated with small-scale insurgency and lawlessness. Our forces cannot fix the future, because the Iraqis must learn to live peacefully together, something that for a century or more they have done only under pressure. Our best shot ultimately will be some limited steps in that direction.
The major problem in the weakest countries is that neither our efforts nor those of the whole international community have ever been enough. The problem is not quantity of assistance, but quality of involvement. Peacekeeping efforts if they succeed at all, buy time for troubled communities by reducing or shutting off conflict. That is insufficient, however, if communities suffer from lack of resources. Impatience and frustration grow. Scarcity conditions tend to rekindle conflicts. A comprehensive restorative and/or developmental effort is called for in the majority of cases, and that seldom happens. Iraq is lucky because it has intrinsic wealth, but people must learn to work together.
Global Poverty Is Growing
At the present time, about 5% of all people, equivalent to the entire population of the United States, live below our defined poverty line. After a long decline, poverty is increasing in the United States, even the families of many of our troops in Iraq are on food stamps, but poverty conditions in the rest of the world are much worse than they are here. In the poorer countries, development is not occurring with anything like needed rapidity, and poverty is outpacing development generally. The need in roughly half the world is for developmental assistance, and financial support, both public and private, on a greatly augmented and sustained scale. Failure to respond to this need has been our most common international policy error for decades. In 2002 the UN recorded $59 billion in Official Development Assistance with the United States and Japan between them accounting for one third of the total. France, Germany, Britain, other European Countries, and Canada accounted for much of the rest. But only five countries met or exceeded the UN specified goal of contributing .07 percent of gross domestic product in 2002. The US regularly achieves about one seventh of that .07% goal.
Copycats Are Not Easily Contained
Several writers and commentators have pointed out that an exclusive writ does not exist for the United States to abandon foreign policy rules that have worked for at least half a century. The United States and other advanced countries have worked diligently to wean countries away from such foreign policy aberrations as pre-emptive strikes, assassination, hot pursuit or other border-crossing tactics, peremptory detentions, and abuses of prisoners.
Driven by the neo-conservative hawks, the United States is becoming a role model for the bad actors. The restraint on others that was achieved by efforts to promote the US/European example was always spotty, but the abandonment of such restraints by the United States itself is a major setback to good governance. The United States will pay for this not only through less considered treatment of Americans abroad, but also through loss of respect for American positions on key global issues and emulation of policy aberrations both against US interests and other countries. Unless corrected, this will greatly reduce the US margin for error in the coming decades.
The Bottom Line
Several analysts, beginning immediately \after the first Gulf War, have argued that the United States makes a great mistake trying to go it alone, using our blood and treasure to be a world policeman, and not paying our dues to the UN, the only global organization that can help. The hawks are trying to carry the world policeman role to a militarist extreme, to be the world's sole military power. To assert that role, our leaders are bending and breaking the basic rules of international behavior we learned at great cost during the past century.
In addition, while trying to keep the WMD genii in the bottle worldwide, we are more or less openly experimenting with both bigger (bunker busters) and smaller (tactical) nuclear, chemical explosive and electronic weapons. Our biggest and perhaps even fatal error may be failure to contain the spread of our best bad ideas.
More often than we would like, those ideas will spread with help from some of us. The very information systems that make us powerful also facilitate an explosive spread of ideas, including our mistakes. That will proliferate our most advanced ideas, military and otherwise, and further reduce our margin for error.
Our problem is that as wealthy as we are, we are not big enough to rule the world. With the US and other developed nations at the top, the global system is not an orderly pyramid. That pyramid still too closely resembles a needle in a mud pie. That is an awkward system to administer even with enormous resources and worldwide support. If our budget and fiscal policies remain the way they are under the present administration, those policies will squander the rest of our dwindling national net worth, and we may be too poor to rule the world anyway. In any case, we will need all the help we can get to keep our place in it.
Living within a narrow margin for error that has been created by our bad habits and our misguided leadership is our assignment. Unless we get this right, the New American Century of the neo-cons, which was always a pipe dream, is already a lost cause. Even more important, the United States will have blown the chance to lead that was offered to it by most countries after the evil deeds of 9-11.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State and a former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College. He will welcome comments at


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