Friday, December 05, 2008

Gates: Have the army you'll go to war with

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' precis of the Pentagon's new National Defense Strategy in Foreign Affairs, A Balanced Strategy, can be read as an extended inversion of Donald Rumsfeld's fatalistic "you go to war with the army you have." Gates' mantra: have the army you'll go to war with. Here as in many speeches, he spotlights the imperative to reform the Pentagon bureaucracy so that it responds more swiftly to the immediate needs of soldiers in the field -- and can think past ingrained assumptions about what kinds of conflict the U.S. needs to prepare for in the future. Hence his subtitle: "Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age."

Like Obama, Gates presents his case for strong action against the status quo as a quest to create "balance," which he identifies as a need on three closely related fronts:
The strategy strives for balance in three areas: between trying to prevail in current conflicts and preparing for other contingencies, between institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and foreign military assistance and maintaining the United States' existing conventional and strategic technological edge against other military forces, and between retaining those cultural traits that have made the U.S. armed forces successful and shedding those that hamper their ability to do what needs to be done.
For Gates, creating this "balance" requires pushing hard in one direction against decades-old institutional biases. He wants the Pentagon to place more emphasis on current than on future conflict, more on counterinsurgency than on conventional weaponry, and more on shedding harmful cultural traits than on retaining useful ones.

Gates' three rebalancings mesh, of course. Working harder to get soldiers in Aghanistan what they need today also tips the balance of future planning toward counterinsurgency. Doing so means breaking through the Pentagon's institutional bias toward preparing for major-power conflict.

"Balance" is a multi-valanced term for Gates. It entails triage -- distinguishing the essential from the important; risk management -- accepting less likely risks (e.g. the need to fight a major land war tomorrow) so as to cope effectively with likely dangers, such as newly failed states turning into terrorist breeding grounds; leverage -- i.e., learning to effectively train forces of order and governance in weak or developing states, and re-learning how to gain effective support from allies -- and ultimately, transformation (gradually and mainly be indirect means) of societies in which autocracy, anarchy, extremism and poverty prevail.

Triage: Three decades' experience should have taught us that asymmetrical conflict is the military's primary order of business for the foreseeable future:
Think of where U.S. forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more. In fact, the first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict from beginning to end. As General Charles Krulak, then the Marine Corps commandant, predicted a decade ago, instead of the beloved "Son of Desert Storm," Western militaries are confronted with the unwanted "Stepchild of Chechnya."
Risk Management:
The most likely catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland -- for example, that of a U.S. city being poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack -- are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states...It is true that the United States would be hard-pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I have asked before, where on earth would we do that? U.S. air and sea forces have ample untapped striking power should the need arise to deter or punish aggression -- whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait. So although current strategy knowingly assumes some additional risk in this area, that risk is a prudent and manageable one.
Where possible, U.S. strategy is to employ indirect approaches -- primarily through building the capacity of partner governments and their security forces -- to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial direct military intervention. In this kind of effort, the capabilities of the United States' allies and partners may be as important as its own, and building their capacity is arguably as important as, if not more so than, the fighting the United States does itself.
Transformation: On this front, Gates sounds very like Obama, portraying the multi-dimensional struggle to reduce the conditions that breed terrorism:
What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign -- a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation. Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory. Where possible, what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit. It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideologies.
Compare that stalwart prose with a rather remarkable flight of Obama's rhetoric, deployed as preamble to outlining the tools of soft power:
What lies in the heart of a child in Pakistan matters as much as the airplanes we sell her government. What's in the head of a scientist from Russia can be as lethal as a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. What's whispered in refugee camps in Chad can be as dangerous as a dictator's bluster. These are the neglected landscapes of the 21st century, where technology and extremism empower individuals just as they give governments the ability to repress them; where the ancient divides of region and religion wash into the swift currents of globalization.
For Gates as for Obama, the imperative to combat chaos, poverty and oppressive ideology springs not from grandiose ambition but from humility. In a world where the technology of mass destruction is ever more accessible, there can be no true security anywhere until the poverty and oppression that breed terror are drastically reduced. His focus is largely on soft power because hard power is never enough:
I have learned many things in my 42 years of service in the national security arena. Two of the most important are an appreciation of limits and a sense of humility. The United States is the strongest and greatest nation on earth, but there are still limits on what it can do.
That sense of limitation leads Gates to emphasize diplomacy, to lament the shrinking of the organs of U.S. soft power through the Clinton years, and to seek to build the foreign service, foreign aid, and U.S. information agencies. His sense of how to build and wield hard and soft power in concert is very much in sync with that of his new boss.

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