A new security concept emerged on the American defense-planning scene several years ago. Asymmetric warfare was worked into the 1997 National Security Strategy. Analysts and major defense documents have since described the more vexing and menacing security challenges as asymmetric. The term is used in connection with threats, strategies, and warfare.
Asymmetry typically describes an enemy that thinks or acts differently from America, especially when faced with conventionally superior U.S. forces. Asymmetric threats are most often associated with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and unfamiliar capabilities such as those displayed in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Such weapons leverage vulnerabilities we either overlook or tolerate. And these asymmetric approaches can generate dramatic outcomes for a weaker power.
Yet this concept has lost its usefulness in part because it means different things to different people. Moreover, when joined with warfare or threats, the term asymmetric adds little to the strategic thinking of ages past. Observations that weak and clever enemies can bring a stronger power to its knees by exploiting vulnerabilities or can brazenly challenge muscle-bound modern militaries with a surprise use of frightening weapons or unfamiliar maneuvering simply restate the obvious: strategy matters. So what does the concept of asymmetry add to an understanding of warfare and the threat? Is it a useful defense planning or policy analysis tool in this post-Cold War, post-9/11 world?
These are not idle questions. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has described a variety of acute threats to the United States as asymmetric. That has been his shorthand for WMD, ballistic and cruise missiles, and terrorism. He confessed in an interview with The New York Times that he was at a loss to explain what this concept really meant. "I don't like it. I wish I knew an alternative. I wish I knew a better way of saying 'weapons of mass destruction."'] In his frustration, it appears he intuitively reached a conclusion offered here, that the relatively young concept of asymmetry appears to have outlived its usefulness in the context of security discussions.
Making Sense of It All
Despite being militarily dominant, the United States today must prepare defenses against dissimilar enemies who are able to exploit vulnerabilities by using shadowy tactics and highly lethal weapons. These parties threaten to strike at the foundations of national security, alter the American way of life, and dumbfound the highly efficient, ultramodern Armed Forces. Asymmetry, a multifaceted, multidimensional concept that sought to capture these dangers, was rushed into service to help analysts make sense of it all.
The post-Cold War world is perplexing. The military dominance of the United States defines today's international power system, a reality made plain by the country's global strategy, power projection capabilities, operational expertise, force structure, defense budget, leadership responsibilities, and technological and industrial might. This unmatched power might explain a curious feature of asymmetry: it is often a synonym for anti-Americanism.
Several factors work against U.S. security despite its global dominance. Included are self-imposed constraints, those real or perceived obligations that limit Washington's ability or willingness to act militarily. Unilateral legal constraints include such measures as the Posse Comitatus Act, arms control conventions such as the Biological Weapons Convention and Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Executive order banning assassination. U.S. commanders and leaders also rigorously plan and execute operations according to the well-developed laws of armed conflict. Whereas Osama bin Laden and his supporters believe it is their duty to target civilians and that attacks against the infidel will be rewarded, war for Americans is a measure of last resort against armed enemies for principle and in defense of interests. …