US President George W. Bush (R) applauds
Mikhail Klementyev  /  AFP - Getty Images
Jacobs: Bush may think that he understands the motives of Vladimir Putin, but Putin is a dangerous man and should not be underestimated.
By Military analyst
updated 8/20/2007 8:48:58 AM ET 2007-08-20T12:48:58

One doesn’t usually associate national security with popular music, but the talented, tortured Kurt Cobain may have been the only grunge rocker to make the trenchant observation, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.”

National defense is a bizarre mixture of the real and imagined, of paranoia and complacency. At best, information about actual and potential enemies is imperfect, and it often doesn’t exist at all. And even when there is incontrovertible evidence of our enemies’ intentions, we do a rotten job of perceiving it. Remember that al-Qaida first tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and we did nothing to prevent the enemy’s eventual success eight years later.

In recognition of government’s inability to get it right, officials tend to assume the worst.

'Too disastrous to ignore'
In the period after the end of World War II, the Soviet Union was assumed to be our most formidable enemy, and our military capability reflected it. We kept a fairly large standing defense establishment, and it was dominated by conventional and nuclear deterrence. Even as we were fighting a real, unsuccessful unconventional war in Vietnam, the majority of our war plans assumed the requirement to deter and, if necessary to repel, a Soviet attack on Western Europe. This was a very unlikely event, but the consequences of being unprepared for it were too disastrous to ignore. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it was safest to assume that the Soviets were out to get us.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in what appeared at the time to be a spasm of democracy, our national sigh of relief was almost palpable. Meanwhile, our perception of China changed, too. It was no longer a nation of a billion Maoist maniacs but instead a valued trading partner with capitalist characteristics. The cold war was over. Time to dismantle the machine.

Assume they're out to get us
There is nothing wrong with focusing on the current threat, which is a broad pastiche of both organized and disorganized fundamentalists, fanatics and nut cases of varying capabilities. Indeed, if anything, we are in greater danger than ever before from these people and are far behind where we should be in fielding more effective ways to detect and deal with them -- and to assist our allies to deal with them, too.

But if we’re frightened of the extra-governmental crazies, we should not also assume that Russia and China are now benign. They are not. President Bush may think that he understands the motives of Vladimir Putin, but Putin is a dangerous man and should not be underestimated; China’s armed forces are growing dramatically, both in terms of size and capability. Japan has so little confidence in our ability to thwart the Chinese that it is growing its own forces, and its days with a pacifist constitution may soon be over.

While a confrontation with either China or Russia is very unlikely any time soon (and public belligerence is always counter-productive) a much-needed reversal of our military decline is overdue. If we don’t discard some of our complacency now, we may not have any time to do it in a crisis. Strategically, it may be wise to begin now to assume that they’re out to get us, to plan for the worst, because a lack of preparedness is a very expensive luxury.

You don’t have to be paranoid to create an effective national defense, but it helps.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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