For about 300 or 350 years most conflicts in the world, or at least the major ones, were between and among nation-states, that is one country fighting another or several fighting each other. More often than not these conflicts were about boundaries, territory, aggrieved minorities, religious or ethnic friction, or simply raw power.
Conventional nation-state wars evolved into large armies wearing national uniforms, employing ever more sophisticated large weapons, often meeting in decisive battles in more or less open fields. These conflicts created their own rules embodied in international law and Geneva conventions.
Beginning sometime in the post-World War II time of colonial disintegration, so-called wars of national liberation sprang up, one country trying to rid itself of an occupying power. This produced guerilla tactics—non-uniformed, indigenous forces using light weapons, hit-and-run methods, and often hitting civilian targets. These kinds of conflicts proliferated when the bi-polar lid of the Cold War was lifted. We experienced this unconventional warfare in Vietnam as the Soviets did (and now the U.S. does) in Afghanistan.
Largely under the threat of weapons of mass destruction, nation-state wars are declining. But irregular, unconventional conflicts are expanding. History may record its inaugural date as September 11, 2001, but its roots are at least a half-century older.
This is all true and, arguably, so obvious one does not even need to state it. However, it is something terribly important to keep in mind when it comes to foreign policy and defense policy. The question is no longer about whether a nation can invade another nation or repel an invasion of its own soil but instead of how it can best respond to a multitude of small scale threats.
The Bush Administration cast these small threats in the familiar role of one all encompassing threat and initiated the so-called 'Global War on Terror.' Bush apologists and many conservatives who otherwise don't have much good to say about Bush will say, 'We haven't been attacked since 9/11 so the Bush Doctrine worked.' It's important to remember that we hadn't been attacked on American soil for nearly a decade before 9/11. So something others did worked as well, arguably better than what Bush was doing before 9/11.
As satisfying as it is to jump on Bush for the errors of judgement prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center, it is still important to remember that one hundred percent security is not possible in a free society. The fact that the attacks happened is less important than the reaction to them. Bush's reaction was the dawn of a new age of American Imperialism and unilateral action. The demonstration that the United States could react with overwhelming force was probably very comforting to a lot of voters, regardless of their political affiliation. It certainly made Dennis Miller feel better.
The problem is that, however it made us feel, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq probably didn't do terribly much to address the real threat of small scale terrorist attack around the world. Instead we gained responsibility for two countries. Iraq appears to have been a successful effort in nation building, but we won't really know for years to come. The Soviet Union's 'nation building' efforts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia looked terribly successful for about eighty years. Afghanistan continues to be a quagmire.
I'm not proposing the complete abandonment of a conventional military. That would be irresponsible in a dangerous world. However, we need to gear that military toward the real threats to American security. As John Kerry said in 2004, we need to able to coordinate law enforcement and intelligence efforts with a surgical response to specific small-scale threats. We also need to understand there is no one overweening enemy. The SCGWOT is a farce. We face quite a lot of little enemies.
One of the fundamental disappointments I have with the Obama Administration is that they have not totally addressed this issue. President Obama emphasized Afghanistan so as not to appear too 'dovish' to Middle American voters who wanted a tough president. Now he is stuck dealing with that very big mess. Many of the civil rights issues raised by the Bush Administration's Homeland Security agenda remain unaddressed.
The economy and health care have distracted from many of these issue for many on the left. It's important that we change our foreign policy and security policy to suit a changing world. To avoid ending on a completely critical note, it is important to give President Obama a great deal of credit for his handling of political issues involving Russia. The cancellation of the misguided missile shield facilities in Poland the Czech Republic has led to Russia withdrawing its threat to veto tougher UN action against Iran.