Although Democrats have made expanding special forces a cornerstone of their "smarter and tougher" alternative policy for fighting terrorists, one suspects that in their hands these forces would be deployed abroad in much the same way social scientists were domestically in the 1960s—as the magic cure—all for problems Democrats don't understand or are not willing to face.
Anyone who views special forces as a panacea should read Derek Leebaert's capacious and engaging history of special operations from antiquity to today. The author, an informations systems consultant and Cold War scholar, is primarily concerned not with the "gee-whiz" gimmickry or extraordinary courage on display in many special ops, but with the ways in which these operations have proven decisive instruments of historical change. In this way, his approach is the inverse of Victor Davis Hanson's emphasis on Western armies' overwhelming superiority in large-scale conventional battles. We have arrived at a moment in warfare, according to Leebaert, when special operations are "the preeminent means of dealing with" terrorists and other "hidden evil powers of compact destruction." But, he warns, the use of special forces requires even more judiciousness than the use of conventional forces, and today's "respectably cool view" that we need more special forces without a grand strategy to inform their use is merely setting us up for disappointment or defeat. Leebaert is an Iraq war skeptic (perhaps opponent would be more apt) and thinks special forces offer an alternative to the imperial deployment of large conventional forces, as we have done in Iraq. Readers may not agree with all the judgments in this idiosyncratic and lively book, but it deserves to be read alongside Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts (2005) and Hanson's many insightful works.
—Steven F. Hayward
American Enterprise Institute
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This article appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of the Claremont Review of Books