Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Iron Gates

Obama’s secretary of defense is still a Bush man.

Shortly after Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, New York Times columnist David Brooks called him a “godsend.” That was hardly the first or last time Brooks failed to see through a veneer. In fairly short order, Robert Gates has become a champion of American warmongery and, in many ways, a more effective handmaiden of the neoconservative agenda than Rummy ever was.

Gates can sound like the steady hand at the helm of our ship of war. “The United States is unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan,” he assures us. “U.S. predominance in conventional warfare,” he says, “is sustainable for the medium term given current trends,” and “the days of hair-trigger superpower confrontation are over.”

But pass a thumbnail over his rhetoric and you’ll find a man with the plan to keep America perpetually mired in Third World wars while arming itself to fight World War III.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, America’s armed services have been on a mission to justify their budgets. Jargon like “transformation” and “revolution in military affairs” dominated force-planning strategies throughout the 1990s. With no rival for open-ocean supremacy, the Navy focused on projecting air and land power ashore from littoral waters. The Army, lacking a large continental conflict to fight or prevent, retooled itself for rapid deployment to global hot spots. Absent any air superiority challenge or a strategic target set to bomb, the Air Force became the Army’s chauffeur. The result was a Navy that’s a coast guard with an air force and an army, an Army that’s a marine corps, and an Air Force that’s an airline.

This Dr. Moreau force structure failed to defend us against the 9/11 attacks or to deter them, and only Bill Kristol and his thousand closest friends think our military is serving America’s interests overseas. Yet incredibly, one of Gates’s stated goals is “sustaining the institution.”

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Gates says, “The defining principle of the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy is balance.” His idea of balance seems to cover the spectrum from plucking cats out of trees to projecting power beyond the Van Allen radiation belt.

Gates admits that we have no need to prepare for a major ground war and says he expects we’ll steer clear of further counterinsurgency bogs, but he was also behind the initiative to add 92,000 troops to the Army and Marines by 2011—the biggest boost in ground-force manning since the long war in Vietnam. Now Gates wants young bodies to wage a long war against an -ism, a kind of war that the globally respected defense analysts at the Rand Corporation insist is best conducted with “a light U.S. military footprint or none at all.”

Displaying MacArthuresque disdain for the campaign promises of the new commander in chief and the status of forces agreement between Iraq and the U.S., Gates says, “there will continue to be some kind of U.S. advisory and counterterrorism effort in Iraq for years to come.” One gathers that he means “years to come after 2011.” Afghanistan, he says, “will require a significant U.S. military and economic commitment for some time.”

Gates doesn’t try to justify American entanglement in the Middle East with the standard “if we leave, they’ll follow us here” boo. Maybe he’s thinking everyone realizes by now that “they” don’t have a navy or air force that can get them here in significant numbers, and they can’t jump or swim that far. But the arguments he does make for staying the quagmire course are just as preposterous: “The United States’ ability to deal with future threats will depend on its performance in current conflicts.”

Nothing in history indicates that the result of any given war dictates the outcome of conflicts that follow. America was on its way to posting an undefeated century until our fiasco in Southeast Asia came along. By Gates’s logic, the United States should have been done as a superpower after Vietnam, but we went on instead to become the first global hegemon.

Everyone from the ancient Stoics to your grandma has admonished you not to worry what others think of you. But Gates would have the United States persist in two self-defeating wars for fear of being taunted on the playground. Ahmed says you’re a sissy if you stop hammering that nail into your eye. Imagine what Ahmed will think of us if we don’t stop hammering.

Few deceptions of the American public in the 21st century have been quite so cruel as the myth of the “successful counterinsurgency.” The only ones who ever truly win an insurgency war are those with home-field advantage. The best you can do in an away game is to cut your losses early or stay so long that by the time you leave nobody notices.

Gates says that our military “became an effective instrument of counterinsurgency” in Iraq, but he skirts the fact that the improved violence statistics largely came about as a result of “Teflon General” David Petraeus bribing militiamen not to use the guns he gave them. Now we have to stick around forever to make sure the payola gets into the right hands and keep the Iranians or al-Qaeda or some other Islamo-fabulist scapegoat from coming along and undoing all our beautiful ugliness.

The New York Times recently reported, “Taking a page from the successful experiment in Iraq, American commanders and Afghan leaders are preparing to arm local militias to help in the fight against a resurgent Taliban.” If one’s idea of success is stumbling into never-ending entrapments that justify expanding one’s branch of service, then the “experiment” is well worth repeating. In fact, “Son of the Surge” might enjoy a longer run than the original.

Then again, it’s hard to justify buying $2 billion stealth aircraft and nuclear submarines just to bomb Muslim weddings. So Gates, singing from the company sheet, is reprising bogeymen of yesteryear. “Both Russia and China have increased their defense spending and modernization programs,” he says, a warning that he neglects to put in context.

The CIA and other sources indicate that Russia and China’s “increased” defense budgets are still at most only a tenth the size of ours. Some hawks insist that the Chinese spend more on arms than they admit, but the Chinese could hardly be lying more than we are. President Bush signed a $512 billion defense bill for 2009; a plausible calculation says that when you include things like the security expenses of departments other than Defense and the costs of current and past wars, the tab will exceed $1.4 trillion, more than half the total federal budget. So depending which way the truth ball bounces, we spend a half trillion to a trillion dollars more per year on defense than the Russians and Chinese combined.

An armada couldn’t hold the amount of money Russia and China would have to spend to bring their forces to 21st-century standards. The Russians mustered enough tanks to roll over Georgia; fortunately for them, they could have done the job with a flyswatter because the preponderance of the once vaunted Soviet arsenal is rusting or sinking. As to the quality of the gear Russia now makes, during sea trials in 2008, 20 sailors died of asphyxiation aboard Russia’s newest nuclear submarine when the firefighting system malfunctioned. The safety system warning crewmembers might have saved them, but it malfunctioned, too. And China’s war machine doesn’t look profoundly different from the one that shot down William Holden in “The Bridges at Toko-Ri.” The majority of its combat aircraft are based on 1950s and 1960s technology. As political scientists Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press noted in the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, America’s nuclear primacy is bringing the era of Mutually Assured Destruction to an end.

The Russians learned their lesson about running with the U.S. in an arms race the hard way; they aren’t foolish enough to seek a rematch. The Chinese had sufficient ancient wisdom to stay in the grandstand the first time around. In 2006, U.S. defense companies were responsible for 63 percent of world arms sales, and Western European firms accounted for 29 percent. Arms industries can’t grow like magic beanstalks. Even if Russia and China wanted to acquire arsenals to match ours, they’d have to buy them from us.

It’s hard to believe Gates is unaware of these things. Maybe his generals are keeping them from him, and he’s too busy to look them up for himself. Whatever the case, he champions development of weapons even costlier and more fantastical than the ones we already have, like the new Next Generation Bomber that will replace our old next generation bomber, the next generation of aircraft carriers that will defend Taiwan from the Chinese as often as the last generation of aircraft carriers did, and a missile defense system that, according to defense technology expert Dr. Richard Garwin, is “guaranteed” not to work.

Gates is a stunning exemplar of self-contradiction. Toward the end of his Foreign Affairs piece he writes, “We should be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish,” yet in the very next sentence he says, “The advances in precision, sensor, information, and satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do.” He appears to be succeeding as secretary of defense through the honored bureaucratic technique known as “leadership à la carte.” You take counsel from Senior Adviser A, adopt proposals from Senior Adviser B, turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of Senior Adviser C, and, voilà, you’ve got a program nobody can deconstruct because everyone is as baffled by it as you are.

But it’s the quote in the closing paragraph of his article that tells you whose orders Gates is really following: “What seems to work best [in world affairs] is the possession by those states who wish to preserve the peace of the preponderant power and of the will to accept the burdens and responsibilities required to achieve that purpose.” The author of that not altogether cogent statement is Donald Kagan, a central member of the neoconservative think tank that framed George W. Bush’s Iraq policy and father of surge architect Frederick Kagan.

Assuming Barack Obama was serious about effecting change in U.S. foreign policy, he could hardly have made a bigger mistake than keeping Robert Gates on as secretary of defense. 

Retired naval commander Jeff Huber commanded an E-2C Hawkeye aircraft squadron and was operations officer of an aircraft carrier. He is the author of Bathtub Admirals, a satire on America’s rise to global dominance. 

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