Reprinted by permission of Foreign Affairs, (Volume 83, Number 2, March/April 2004).
The recent war in Iraq was, among other things, a powerful
advertisement for the effectiveness of the United States’ storied special
operations forces. Americans are just now learning what role these
commandos played in the conflict, but already it has emerged that,
during the early days of the fighting, they managed to secure crucial
airfields in western Iraq, protect the country’s oil fields from saboteurs
(fewer than 10 Iraqi oil fields were ignited, compared to the more than
700 Kuwaiti fields that were set ablaze in 1991), and, most famously,
rescue Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital.
Yet these achievements, although impressive, do not fully explain
the unprecedented prominence currently enjoyed by special operations
forces within the U.S. military. True, such troops may have been well
suited to the kind of missions they were given in Iraq. But they also
happen to fit precisely into the model of a leaner, more flexible military
that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is fighting to create at the
Pentagon. And Rumsfeld has made no secret of his plans to thrust
special forces into the lead role in the war on terrorism, by using them
for covert operations around the globe.
The special forces’ success in Iraq has also obscured a more ominous
consequence of their newfound popularity: that expanding their role
in the way Rumsfeld intends could be very dangerous for U.S. foreign
policy. Thanks to the vagueness of U.S. law governing covert action, using the military for such operations is—at least under one interpretation
of the law—much easier than using the cia. And this facility
seems to appeal to Rumsfeld. It also means, however, that the Defense
Department (at least according to its interpretation of the law) can
conduct covert operations abroad without local governments’ permission
and with little or no congressional oversight or recourse. If Rumsfeld
gets his way, administration hawks may soon start using special forces to attack or undermine other regimes on Washington’s hit list—without
the sort of crucial public debate that preceded the war in Iraq.