It's Time For Extreme Peacekeeping

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On the day before the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush launched a final attack on Al Gore. "I'm worried about an opponent who uses nation building and the military in the same sentence," he said. This was, you may recall, a signature Bush theme. Nation building was for wussy foreign-policy sociologists; the military's job was to "fight and win" wars. How ironic that the good news from Iraq the Bush Administration has been touting is almost entirely due to the excellent nation-building efforts of the U.S. military.

In fairness to the President, everything—especially the role of the military—changed after Sept. 11, 2001. We may now be at the beginning of a protracted global contest against Islamic radicalism, a conflict that will require more subtlety and sophistication than the planning for the occupation of Iraq. At a similar moment, in the early 1960s, when the front lines of the cold war had spread from Germany to the Congo and Vietnam, John F. Kennedy announced his support for an augmented counterinsurgency force—and gave those soldiers real panache by allowing them to wear headgear frowned upon by the traditional military: green berets.

The entire army wears berets now, and there's a lesson in that. Bush has spoken eloquently of the need to expand democracy in the Middle East, and he has been equally eloquent about the nobility of public service. Why not combine both in a new, élite military corps? Call them Extreme Peacekeepers or the Freedom Corps or whatever, but seek out the sort of people who aren't normally inclined to join the military—idealistic college students who hope to become doctors, lawyers, politicians or engineers and are eager to do something noble (and burnish their résumés) by serving their country.

There will be resistance from the traditional military. Indeed, there has been a running battle within the Pentagon about how and whether to do peacekeeping. "I used to say that they should hang a sign outside the building, REAL MEN DON'T DO PEACEKEEPING," General John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told me. In the 1990s, Shalikashvili conducted an uphill campaign to change that. "I tried to establish a Department of Peacekeeping at the Army War College," he added, "but there was resistance—and to this day the doctrine remains that the best peacekeepers are the soldiers best trained for combat."

There are indications, however, that serious Army traditionalists have come to recognize there may be a need for a specialized peacekeeping force. "We're clearly moving in that direction," said retired Lieut. General Dan Christman, a former superintendent of West Point. "There's a desire to serve in the generation now maturing—and they might well be attracted to the model that you describe. But it would have to be done within the culture and traditions of the military."

Christman, Shalikashvili and other military experts proposed some reasonable parameters for a new force. First, it would have to augment the current troop levels. The purpose would be to free up units like the 101st Airborne, now nation building in northern Iraq, for combat. "We don't have enough troops to do what needs to be done now," Shalikashvili told me. Second, these would have to be real soldiers, mentally tough, physically fit and combat ready. "Any peaceful checkpoint can become a battlefield in a heartbeat," said retired Major General Bill Nash, who commanded U.S. troops in Bosnia. There is fierce disdain within the Pentagon for the passive U.N. peacekeepers who stood by while thousands were murdered in Bosnia's ethnic cleansing. Finally, the Extreme Peacekeepers would have to be placed within the existing Army command structure, most likely in the special-operations command—home to the Green Berets and the venue where most civil-affairs training takes place.

But the new force must transcend traditional military culture as well. The State Department would have to be directly involved in the training, which would include some basic diplomatic skills—knowledge of Islamic culture and mores, familiarity with the Koran and language proficiency. The X-Peacekeepers would also have to train for basic policing—how to talk to people, become part of the community and solicit information. An excellent model exists in the 24-week residential training devised for the Police Corps, an élite national-service program that transforms college students into police officers. In fact, Police Corps and special-forces training are similar; both emphasize creative responses in unexpected situations, using scenarios and role playing.

"I'm not going to say Extreme Peacekeepers is a good idea," one general told me. "But it's something we ought to have a conversation about. And I can guarantee you one thing: it ain't going anywhere without a strong push from the very top." The general is right. This is something President Bush might think about—if he wants to leave a distinctive mark on the American military, inspire a new generation of citizen-soldiers and succeed in the larger war on terror.