"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Thus spoke Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the cadets at West Point on February 25. It’s ironic that President Obama’s secretary of defense cites Douglas MacArthur as a foreign policy authority—a general who was fired, as he should have been, by a Democratic president after he botched a land war in Asia, sought to use nuclear weapons, and defied civilian authority. Perhaps Gates should spend his time rereading Matthew Ridgway, or talking with David Petraeus, instead of quoting Douglas MacArthur?
Or perhaps Gates should look in the mirror? As secretary of defense he has sent “a big American land army into Asia,” increasing the U.S. troop presence from around 57,000 soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan in August 2009 to about 100,000 today. (He also presided over a surge of more than 30,000 troops to Iraq.) Leave aside the facts that our soldiers and Marines are succeeding in Afghanistan, and that history will vindicate Gates’s involvement in the decision to surge. Does Gates really think it appropriate—while he’s still secretary of defense, with troops fighting at his direction—to be undercutting the troops’ mission as though he’s resigned to their failure?
As for the “realism” of his prescription: The United States has sent 100,000 or more troops to Asia and the Middle East five times in the last six decades. Does he really think we may never be called upon to do so again?
A few days after West Point, Gates, testifying before Congress, seemed to dismiss calls to institute a no-fly zone over Libya: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses . . . ”
Really? Is it right to characterize an attack on the Qaddafi regime’s air defenses and airplanes, and the execution of a no-fly zone that would protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi, as “an attack on Libya”? Can’t we distinguish a regime that’s lost whatever legitimacy it once had from the nation that regime is destroying and the people that regime is terrorizing? When Gates channels not his inner Douglas MacArthur but his inner Jim Baker and Warren Christopher, who were resigned to slaughter in the Balkans and refused to intervene—isn’t he the one who’s failing to “call a spade a spade”?
Of course, Gates’s background is in the intelligence community, where one is trained not to call a spade a spade, and not to speak clearly in the light of day. His memoir of his years in government, mostly at the CIA, is called From the Shadows. The title reminded me of a passage a colleague recently happened upon from Theodore Roosevelt who, campaigning for Charles Evans Hughes against Woodrow Wilson in October 1916, threw away his manuscript and gave these extemporaneous remarks (Shadow Lawn was Wilson’s summer White House):
There should be shadows enough at Shadow Lawn; the shadows of men, women and children who have risen from the ooze of the ocean bottom and from graves in foreign lands; the shadows of the helpless whom Mr. Wilson did not dare protect lest he might have to face danger; the shadows of babies grasping pitifully as they sank under the waves, the shadows of women outraged and slain by bandits. . . . Those are the shadows proper for Shadow Lawn; the shadows of deeds that were never done; the shadows of lofty words that were followed by no action; the shadows of the tortured dead.
Roosevelt’s rhetoric was hyperbolic—but it was hyperbole in a good cause. And of course Wilson did end up intervening in Europe. Similarly, we imagine President Obama will end up ordering Secretary Gates to institute a no-fly zone in Libya, and will insist that we see things through in Afghanistan.
In many respects Gates has been an improvement as defense secretary over his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. He has been a better defense secretary than many others whom President Obama might have appointed in 2009. But he’s doing his president, and his country, no favors now. He has said for a while he wants to retire. Let him go, with all appropriate felicitations and salutations. And let someone take over as secretary of defense who believes in the missions in which American forces are now engaged, and who does not shy away from the understanding that American power is a crucial force for good in the world.