Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Gates at West Point: 3 principles we've violated?

In his speeches to young officers and cadets, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates generally not only challenges them to come up with nuanced solutions to complex issues but to resist powerful forces pushing back against creative problem solving--such as bureaucratic inertia, groupthink, and the constant temptation to tell superiors and elected officials what they want to hear. It's not surprising, then, that he focused the latter half of his April 21 speech at West Point on officers' responsibility

· To provide blunt and candid advice always;

· To keep disagreements private;

· And to implement faithfully decisions that go against you.

That means, he said, no end runs around civilian leadership when a decision goes against you -
"no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups."

The context in which Gates delivered this admonition was a bit peculiar. He had structured the first half of the speech as a meditation upon three principles of a mentor of Generals Eisenhower and Marshall named Fox Conner. Conner's principles of war for a democracy were these:

· Never fight unless you have to;

· Never fight alone;

· And never fight for long.

Dangerous territory for a loyal lieutenant of George W. Bush.

It's true that Gates' discussion of each of these principles was in part a defense of current policy. On the first - never fight unless you have to - his central point was that we 'have to'
sustain the fight in Iraq now to avoid a worse struggle later. What he did not argue was that we 'had to' invade Iraq in the first place - though he briefly asserted, without elaboration or support, that the Iraq campaign was "justified in my view.' He saved substantive argument for our current course there, comparing leaving a mess in Iraq now to our having left a mess in Afghanistan after the Soviets were defeated. He then moved to the question of preemptive war: "how high must the threshold of confidence in our intelligence have to be to justify at home and abroad a preemptive or preventive war?" He did not answer this question -- but posing it shed a pretty harsh light on our most recent war of choice.

On the second principle - never fight alone - Gates focused his discussion on the difficulties of working with NATO in Afghanistan, pointing out that NATO has two million soldiers under arms, "and yet we struggle to sustain a deployment of less than 30,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan." He went on to quote Churchill: "the only thing worse than having allies is not having them," and to assert that "just about every threat to our security in the years ahead will require working with or through other nations." What he did not say is something he has said explicitly elsewhere: that the Europeans are unwilling to commit more effort to Afghanistan because the effort in their eyes is tainted by association with our adventure in Iraq. Speaking directly to the people of Europe rather than their leaders, Gates has appealed to them to differentiate between the two conflicts, and to recognize the war in Afghanistan is for them a war of necessity -- implicitly acknowledging that Iraq is not. Also left unsaid in the West Point speech: our failure to build an effective coalition in Iraq, and our almost complete lack of allies there now.

As for the third principle, "never fight for long," Gates all but wrote it off as obsolete:

A drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is inevitable over time – the debate you hear in Washington is largely about pacing. But the kind of enemy we face today – violent jihadist networks – will not allow us to remain at peace. What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies.
To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us.
There are no exit strategies. Harsh words. Gates went on to implicitly support the Petraeus doctrine: that the armed forces need to focus primarily on developing asymmetrical, unconventional warfare capability. But having implicitly acknowledged that we did not 'have to' fight in Iraq ('justified' though 'the campaign' may be), and the ways in which our involvement with Iraq has sapped our support from allies, this bleak vision also highlights the extent to which entangling ourselves in Iraq has raised the costs and weakened our position in the so-called "Long War" -- leaving aside the question of whether a unitary 'long war' is the right frame to view our counterterrorism efforts.

Plainly Gates himself has had plenty of experience "getting with the program" in some half dozen administrations. I have no doubt that he is sincere in his admonition to the cadets not to work to undermine decisions they disagree with. As Secretary of Defense, he himself has done an extraordinary job supporting Administration policy while making it more rational and prudent. But the strains of maintaining loyalty while working to extricate the U.S. from a colossal strategic blunder show through this speech.

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