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Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism.

..And Why our Bombs Missed Qaddafi The literary allusion that provides the title of this book* is slightly off, as the subjects discussed--recent U.S. antiterrorism ifforts such as the Iran rescue attempt, the Libya raid, the Beirut security fiascos, and the machinations of North and company--rarely exhibit the character of "best laid" plans. the content of the book is, however, right on the money. Best Laid Plans is an artfully detailed and highly readable account that draws together the essentials of what has previously been revealed about American counterterrorism, while adding many cojpelling new details uncovered by the authors.

Martin, a pentagon reporter for CBS News and one of the network's rising stars, and Walcott, a national security correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, wisely limit their pages devoted to Oliver North. Mainly they conclude that although North went haywire, "the fact that he was more likely to stand trial than Imad Mugniyah [mastermind of several Beirut kidnappings] is grotesque." I agree.

Beyond North, Martin and Walcott introduce a slew of other characters central to U.S. counterterrorism efforts--too many to mention here, but several having fascinating stories. Though their presentation is in general impartial, the authors evince a mild degree of clientism by subtly siding with the Pentagon in the numerous disputes about whether the military or the White House was most to blame for counterterrorism foul-ups: perhaps a source-cultivation phenomenon, as the political dramatis personae of Reagan administration security planning are all either gone or will be soon, while the Pentagon is a much more permanent institution.

Regarding the Libya and Bekka Valley air raids, in which concentrated U.S. high-tech might produced, at best, nebulous results against Third World targets, Best Laid Plans presents a fairly convincing case that political meddling was the biggest problem. On the Libya attack, Martin and Walcott report that the Air Force originally called for just six bombers flown by top pilots using tactics that would maximize their chance of survival and the chances of their precision-guided munitions (PGM) striking the targets. In addition, the Air Force had no desire to hit Muammar Qaddafi's encampment, because it was too close to civilian areas. Then, about 48 hours beforehand, Washington decided that it wanted 18 bombers, nine of them targeted specifically on Qaddafi. Four months of planning went out the window; flight crews without combat experience had to be scared up; and the phasing of the approach to Qaddafi's compound had to be mucked up so that most of the aircraft would be trying to locate their target through the smoke and dust kicked skyward by the lead bomber's ordnance. (Modern strike tactics that involve planes skimming near the ground while attempting to train sensors on their aim point make self-created smokescreens a bigger problem than they were to World War II-style bombs-away drops from higher altitudes.) In light of these considerations, that one of the bombers trying for Qaddafi was destroyed, with loss of crew; that only two of the nine assigned to launch their allegedly foolproof PGMs against the Libyan leader even struck the general vicinity of their target; and that neither of those two scored a hit within the advertised circular-probability zone of the stuff they were using; and of course, that Qaddafi still lives, becomes less unflattering to the Air Force.

Likewise, prior to the Bekka Valley raid, in which two navy aircraft were shot down and hostage Robert Goodman was taken while at best marginal damage was done to the target, there was another nutty change of plans. The navy officer on the scene conceived the raid and scheduled it for noon, so that antiaircraft gunners looking up toward U.S. planes would be dazzled by the sun. At 5:33 a.m. of the appointed day, as the pilots still lay in bed, a garbled order came in from an army general in Europe-one of many links in the extremely extended chain of command between Washington and the task force off Lebanon-pronouncing that the planes must be over their objective no later than 7:30 a.m. Apparently the Joint Chiefs of Staff had issued an ambiguous directive, in response to ambiguous signals from the White House, that it would be nice if the mid occurred within 24 hours of the official provocation, a Syrian missile unsuccessfully heaved at a U.S. plane at 7:30 a.m. the previous morning.

By the time this advisory was filtered through the deskbound flag officers who had to justify their existence by signing off on it, the sentiment had been transformed into an order. This meant not only that when the U.S. strike force arrived, flying toward the east shortly after dawn, the sun was in their eyes, but that, astonishingly, as the groggy pilots were shaken awake and sent posthaste to their flight decks, they discovered that their planes had not been loaded with bombs. Deck crews had been planning a noon raid. In order to make the deadline, all but one of the aircraft had to take off without a full load of ordnance, as there wasn't time to rack up properly, And what they got were standard "dumb?' bombs, not the PGMs that were to be employed, because bringing the PGMs up from below would have consumed too much time and there happened to be some dumb bombs lying about the carrier decks.

Such facts, vividly detailed by Best Laid Plans, do give pause. But Martin and Walcott are less persuasive when they imply, though never state, that neither the failure of the Iran raid nor the destruction of the marine barracks ought be blamed on the Pentagon. In general, the authors play up factors that show how challenging the Iran raid was (true enough) but play down or don't mention many Pentagon blunders and petty turf fights that almost surely doomed the plan from the start. And when they declare that the car bomb assault on the marine barracks was "beyond the ability of Western minds even to grasp, much less defeat," readers may blanch. The Marines may have been thrown into a no-win situation, but no meddling politician insisted their sentries not load their guns, an innovation of the Marines in Beirut that was close to other-worldly. Nor did any pointy-headed bureaucrat tell the Marines to behave as though the very similar carbombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, just a few months before and a few miles away, had never happened.

These things matter if you believe, as I do, that in many respects the condition of the U.S. military remains a major national worry: from Pentagon devotion of too high a proportion of precious funds to max-tech gizmos that rarely work as promised, to continued reliance on stultified hierarchies and the unrealism they generate. Martin and Walcott tend to conclude that policy flaws and the political delusions that follow are what matters about America's experience with counterterrorism, and if you had to choose these would indeed be the leading candidates. But our response to terrorism and our experience in "low intensity" conflicts like Grenada have been the primary instruments for testing the post-Vietnam U.S. military, die most expensive single government institution in world history, and with a few heartening exceptions, such as the flawless and bloodless intercept of the Achille Lauro hijackers, the record has not been much to brag about.

Granted, military establishments are designed to acquire or defend large blocks of land or sea. Discrete, not-really-war"surgical" strikes against targets entwined with civilian life are an entirely different maner from defending our country and our allies against threats of extinction, (A curse be on the Kennedy administration planner who, during the Cuban missile crisis, invented the improbable notion of the surgical strike, tugging as it has at Washington wish-fulfillment mechanisms ever since.) But it is no longer true, as the Pentagon used to assert when rationalizing ill preparation for "special operations," that U.S. society devotes scant resources to counterterrorism.

During the Reagan years, billions have been funneled to exactly that arena; the check has practically been blank. A new Pentagon structure, the Joint Special Operations Command, has been established and granted nearly every item on its wish list, including exemption from "political interference" (i.e. , scrutiny) by Congress, The result, as Best Laid Plans indicates if read closely, appears to be another self-interested, top-heavy military bureaucracy. In conjunction there have been breakdowns like the Yellow Fruit silliness detailed by Stephen Emerson in his recent book Secret Warriors and corruption of some officers who were billed as "Crack." Since policy fads, imagemaker focuses, and presidential advisers come and go, I fear the Pentagon's mixed record on special operations may in the tong run be a more important story than the North, Hezbollah, and hostage issues. Thus I wish Martin and Walcott had wrned their considerable talents on that issue more fully.

Probably many reviewers will conclude that Best Laid Plans is well written and well reported but that it stumbles on its brief, slapped-on, and vaguely worded section that begins, "How should the U.S. react to terrorism?" Such an assessment is accurate but not necessarily to the authors' detriment. The dilemma of stopping terrorism while remaining a democracy that plays by the rules has left reeling everyone who has pondered its specifics. Have you ever read any prescription for swift and decisive response, no more coddling, time for a crackdown, etc., that can't be summarized as Easier Said Than Done? Martin and Walcott regularly emphasize this theme, never slipping over into the hype-journalism temptation of implicitly ridiculing others for failing to do what the journalist himself cannot say how to do. That's to their credit, as is just about everything in this fine, timely book.
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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1988
Words:1631
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