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Gates' urgent task is to adapt to a nontraditional war

Is it possible that the Berlin Wall came down a mere 17 years ago? The demise of that iconic image of the Cold War led to a euphoric period of international optimism rivaled last century only by the years immediately following World War II. The end of the ideological struggle between the world's two superpowers seemed to signal that the time had finally arrived for nations to work toward true international cooperation and prosperity.

The events surrounding the Sept. 11 terror attacks proved this euphoric period to be painfully short-lived. Western values, ideals and, make no mistake, freedoms are under siege from this global evil.

The existence of Osama bin Laden almost doesn't matter anymore. Enough demonstrative edicts have been issued from top-level al-Qaida officials to credibly validate the certainty and purpose of their "calling." As the unofficial spokesperson for the free world, like it or not, the United States will bear the burden of defeating this diabolical movement and will largely determine on which battlegrounds to engage the enemy.

Iraq was supposed to be one such battleground. One can argue to what degree Iraq met this criterion, but what is clear now is that it has evolved into so much more. At this juncture enters President Bush's new secretary of defense, Robert Gates. His tenure will be shorter than most, but his appointment comes at the most critical of times.

The war on terrorism already has proven to be asymmetrical in tactics and operations. Conventional divisions, aircraft carriers and bomber squadrons are necessary to take and hold ground, but will do little to shake the confidence of our enemies, who prefer not to show up for the big fight.

Instead, this war will be fought through intelligence and special operations, and these should be the two growth industries in the Department of Defense (and other government agencies). This enemy needs to be defeated through cunning, deception and knowledge superiority.

The fact that the young masses in many Muslim countries are being indoctrinated into hating the West is another troubling story, but Gates will not be accountable for that tragedy. He will, however, be measured by how well he safeguards the people of this nation against all enemies.

The services will fight hard to keep the vast majority of legacy systems and infrastructure. Indeed, it is wise to maintain superiority in conventional systems to counter any rising powers. But the cost of these programs should constitute less than in previous years, with the offset going to those aforementioned "growth" industries.

If Gates is able to accomplish this, and keep his service secretaries content, he will have gone a long way toward ensuring the long-term safety of the United States, if not western civilization. Failure to set us on this track now may have dire consequences for decades.

A. Howard Hein, a retired Navy commander, lives in East Amherst.

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