The Los Angeles Times
14 January, 1986

F. Andy Messing Jr.

Focusing on Low-Intensity Conflicts

Force Here, Social Justice There? Tend to Them All, Or Fail

More than two dozen small wars are raging in the world. As a result, millions of people are being psychologically traumatized, starved and killed on our ever-shrinking planet in conflicts that are virtually ignored by the media, Congress and the Administration.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department expends enormous amounts of money and preparation for a war in Europe or a nuclear war, neither of which we will ever fight. And it runs around in circles organizing for counterterrorism, which is only a small part of the low-intensity conflict spectrum; such conflicts range from propaganda campaigns to full-scale guerrilla wars.

On the other side, tens of thousands of anti-nuclear war demonstrators spend millions of dollars on costumes, buttons and signs while children in the Third World go without teachers and books. America responds to the plight of one select country with concerts and T-shirts that buy tons of food, some of which rots on docks, while most of those same people return to worrying about football scores, fashions or new recreational drugs.

When the United States tries to focus on low-intensity conflicts, it takes a distorted approach. The key to solving such conflicts is to address simultaneously the social, political, economic and military concerns of the countries in conflict.

For more than three decades, however, American conservatives have addressed these conflicts in economic and military terms. Liberals have tended to concentrate on the social and political aspects. Interestingly enough, both factions have been correct, but both also have been wrong. Our overall foreign-policy performance would have been far more consistent and effective if both factions had addressed all four factors simultaneously.

Dealing with low-intensity conflicts is similar to a juggler with four balls to throw. The first thrown usually is a military ball, to provide for basic security; it is quickly followed by social, economic and political balls in order of immediate importance. But, once the balls are in the air, the juggler must devote equal attention to each.

It is as important for a campesino to receive justice for a stolen chicken as it is for there to be an adequate supply of bullets for the military forces that protect him. It also is important that economic projects that create jobs at the "rice-roots" level get the same attention as efforts to ensure dialogue between cogent and non-combative factions of left and right.

Concentrating on just one or two aspects of the problem may suppress it, but eventually it will reappear. In the case of El Salvador, the lack of momentum on social justice and the lack of a dynamic right will prolong the internal conflict. The Philippines' economic inequities and political operating extremes only fuel violence. Nicaragua's one-sided political system and aberrant social programs only serve to promote the counterrevolutionary insurgency. The list goes on, war by war.

If the United States were to plot a grid that showed economic, military, social and political factors of low-intensity-conflict countries, it would be a good indicator of each country's problems and what should be done to correct them. Areas where there is a significant discrepancy would indicate where the United States should focus its attention. Thus all levels of people in the troubled society, not just a select group such as the business community or the military, would feel that progress is being made.

People involved in different aspects of such conflicts fail to see the inter-relationships. For instance, the military and business communities sometimes fail to see how promoting social justice and political plurality reduce violence, and vice-versa. The human and financial costs of low-intensity conflicts increase dramatically when governments fail to integrate the four factors.

In the Philippines during the late 1940s and early 1950s the communists and other insurgents were beaten because a far-sighted leader, Ramon Magsaysay, concentrated equally on all four aspects and got all elements of society to pull together. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, who worked with Magsaysay, urged the use of a similar approach in Vietnam, which he believed "would take the cause away from the guerrillas."

When President John F. Kennedy died, the military-industrial complex cast Lansdale aside and steamrolled ahead to 58,000 Americans dead and failure.

Other U.S.-involved low-intensity conflicts do not have to end this way. But, as Lansdale noted recently, "it requires us to have courage...." These conflicts can be resolved without draining us of manpower, money and prestige. We can even assist in solving problems that have caused conflicts for decades, and steer these countries to democracy with a small "d," thereby thwarting communist expansion. By following this model we would be able to avoid involvement in conflicts at a much higher level of violence.

Once liberals and conservatives join in this multidimensional approach, we will realize an enhanced power to adjudicate problems and stymie Soviet adventurism justly, firmly and with vigor.

F. Andy Messing Jr., executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation in Alexandria, Va., recently visited 13 low-intensity-conflict countries.