Eminentoes

Defense According to Robert Gates

The art of political survival in the Obama era.

By 12.12.08

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In an article to be published in the January/February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Gates, the current and future Secretary of Defense, has written that his department should not be "preoccupied" with what is defined as conventional and strategic conflict. Under a theme of "balance" it hasn't taken him long to remodel his thought process awaiting January 20.

In a rather obvious statement Gates discovered, "Support for conventional modernization programs is deeply embedded in the Defense Department budget…" He goes on to say that this applies to all aspects of the defense community: the bureaucracy, the industries, the Congress. He suggests that these interested parties tend to disregard the requirements appropriate to "today's wars and some of their likely successors."

This is exactly what was heard in one form or another post the Vietnam War. The only difference is that Jimmy Carter didn't even want to recognize the increased role of counter-insurgency and special operations that Gates emphasizes. The delayed planning and restricted format of Operation Eagle Claw, the rescue mission to free the Tehran embassy hostages, was an example of the Carter Administration's inability to accept the reality of world political/military affairs.

It appears that Bob Gates seeks to redefine global crises realities so as to justify his true objective of reducing military spending. Gates bases his military intelligence forecast on the thesis that the U.S. would not have to fight "on short notice" another major conventional war in the near or predictable future.

Apparently Secretary Gates counts on a considerable lead-time in any emerging ground conflict with Iran or North Korea. Supporting U.S. Navy aircraft battle groups would have to be shifted to the appropriate theater -- an action already found to overtax American naval resources during the Iraq war. And yet Gates implies the U.S. Navy needs no enhancement during the next presidency. This strategic concept suggests the Air Force's advanced fighter planes, such as the F-22, will of course not be necessary, so they could be shelved -- as well as other unnecessary major war advanced weapon systems.

While recognizing the need for what is known as stability operations, in Bob Gates' view anti-terrorist military activity must 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."

After all this time one would have thought that this quintessential bureaucrat would have learned that sticks as well as carrots are necessary in combating terrorist organizations. It should be noted in passing that he stays self-protectively clear of commenting on coercive interrogation as an intelligence tool.

Gates has accepted the more humanitarian idea that the world's problems that produce terrorism are primarily economically and socially-centered rather than driven by harshly material, historical, political and religious forces. This may fit well into Gates' Eagle Scout background, but it is Pollyannaish nonsense in the real world context.

In essence, Gates in his essay is challenging the reader to come up with a reasonable world circumstance in which a major American conventional war fighting capability would be necessary. This approach ignores the basic element in world affairs of unintended consequences and unexpected action. But Bob Gates knows this already. He just ignores it.

The fact is that there are serious flashpoints around the world that could escalate into major conflict, and Sec.Def. Gates knows this as well as anyone. Arguing the potential of any of them is futile other than to note they exist. History has already proven major conflict can arise from seemingly minor beginnings -- and quite quickly.

Why is it that Robert Gates wants to reduce to an academic exercise the dangers historically implicit in world affairs? And more important why -- other than justifying reducing the defense budget -- does he wish to downplay the need at this time of maintaining and, most importantly, improving existing U.S. conventional air, sea, and ground forces?

One can see now why the surprising choice was made of Gates by President-elect Obama to stay on as SecDef. No worries about him from the Left's anti-war machine because Robert Gates' ability to argue out of both sides of his mouth makes him a suitable defense choice in the new administration. It may take a while, but the thinking public will catch on -- hopefully before America's enemies do.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.