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What Our Secretaries of Defense Keep Getting Wrong

It doesn’t seem like the hardest lesson in human history to grasp, but it has been: don’t go in.

| Tue Mar. 8, 2011 4:01 AM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Talking about secretaries of defense...

Oh, we weren't?

Well, let's. After all, they're in the news.

Take former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who, on leaving government service—and I hope you don't mind if I mangle a quote from General Douglas MacArthur here—refused to die, or even fade away. Instead, he penned Known and Unknown, a memoir almost as big as his ego and almost as long—832 pages—as the occupation of Iraq, which promptly hit the bestseller lists (making the American reader a Known Unknown).

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Now, Mr. Known Knowns, etc., is duking it out on Facebook, Sarah-Palin-style, with "the chief gossip-monger of the governing class," the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. Amusingly enough, Woodward has just savaged Rumsfeld for pulling a Woodward in his memoir by playing fast and loose with reality. He posted his review at the Best Defense (as in, you know, a good offense), the war fightin' blog of former Washington Post reporter and bestselling author Tom Ricks. Small world down there in Washington!

It's enough to make you nostalgic for... well, I have no idea what.

Meanwhile, present Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, officially preparing to fade away later this year, hit the news as well. His much-hinted-at retirement now seems like the Titanic looming on the military-industrial horizon. (Take note, New York publishers and literary agents: Gates wrote a memoir the last time he faded away as CIA Director. That was back in the Neolithic Age of the elder Bush. It came out in 1996 and was titled From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. Still, chalk that effort up to another century and start preparing the contracts for Into the Shadows, The Ultimate Insider's Story of Two More Presidents and How They Didn't Win Much of Anything.)

To be exact, Gates made news by going to West Point to speak to the cadets in what was plugged as the first of a number of "farewell" addresses. (The second came a week later at the Air Force Academy.) In the process, he made the headlines for quoting—somewhat oddly—General Douglas (the original fader) MacArthur.

Now, give Gates credit. The man has superb speechwriters who channel both his obvious intelligence and his sometimes-mordant sense of humor. (Hint for Hillary: When he leaves the scene, you should grab any wordsmiths he lets loose. It would help if you laced some self-deprecating humor, however borrowed, into those statements of yours that ­blank [fill in the country, tyrant, or protest movement] must do what you say and then that you just repeat when whoever or whatever predictably doesn't...)

Examined Heads

...Oh sorry, I dozed off. What was I saying?

Something about old soldiers?

Anyway, here was the eye-popping quote that everyone picked up and highlighted from Gates's address: "But 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."

"Have his head examined": strong words indeed, not to say strong advice for his successor! As quoted, it did sound like a late-in-term awakening on America's wars. After all, the Secretary of Defense had to know that it would be the money paragraph, the one reporters would carry off, in a speech significantly about other matters.

Quoted by itself, it also had to seem like a mix of a mea culpa, a j'accuse aimed at his former boss, President George W. Bush, and his predecessor Rumsfeld, and a never-again statement about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he's been overseeing since 2006 and, in the case of Afghanistan, expanding since 2008.

Those four words from MacArthur seem to tell the only tale worth telling. Supreme Commander, southwest Pacific area, during World War II, "emperor" of occupied Japan, and commander of United Nations forces in the Korean War until cashiered by President Harry Truman, MacArthur later urged President John F. Kennedy not to get involved in a "land war on mainland Asia"—that is, in Vietnam.

As Christian Science Monitor reporter Brad Knickerbocker typically wrote, Gates's "recollection of Gen. MacArthur's famous warning—given to President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as the US buildup in Vietnam was beginning—was a sober message for the young men and women about to become the next generation of US military commanders." Gates, in other words, was citing a "famous" example of how MacArthur used his hard-won experience in a terrible, stalemated war in Asia to try to stop another disastrous war a decade later. A flattering analogy, one might say.

There's only one problem: it just wasn't so. MacArthur's "famous warning" came not in 1961, but in 1950. As Michael D. Pearlman explains in his book Truman & MacArthur: Politics, Policy, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown, MacArthur made that comment soon after North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. He believed they were only conducting a "reconnaissance-in-force." On June 26th, 1950, MacArthur, writes Pearlman, "was ‘astonished' to receive directions to resist the invader. ‘I don't believe it. I can't understand it.' John Foster Dulles, who favored a prompt military response, recorded him saying that anyone thinking of throwing American forces into the breech ‘ought to have his head examined.'"

MacArthur's urge, then, was prospective, not retrospective—a gut reaction that has, in the last decades, Gates's decades, been notably absent in Washington. There's no way of knowing whether this was clear to Gates or his speechwriter, but under the circumstances it was an odder phrase to quote than the reporters covering his address imagined, for it highlighted an essential problem with Gates and the rest of Washington's global wrecking crew. For them, the idea of going in has seldom been an alien one. It's going in the wrong way that bothers them—and the problem (as Gates essentially admitted in his speech) is that you only know it's the wrong way afterwards.

That striking quote of his, read in the context of his full speech, leaves a somewhat different taste behind. Even the assumed prohibition against future Iraq- and Afghan-style wars is more cryptic than you might imagine. The best Gates can do is this: "The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq—invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country—may be low." Low, but not evidently nil in a world where all options always remain "on the table."

Of course, his real focus at West Point was on quite a different kind of conflict. He was there, in a sense, on a business trip to the future as the deliverer of prospective bad news to the future officers of the US Army. Their leaders, he wanted to tell them, were about to lose an intra-service struggle for the fruits of the still-growing but increasingly embattled Pentagon budget in economically fierce times.

In terms of future funding, and so future war-fighting, their service, he was there to tell them, was not well positioned. "The Army," he said, "also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the US military are primarily naval and air engagements—whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere."

(Note to journalists in a collapsing industry: it's not often that a long-gone beat comes back, but that's the case here. In the 1950s, the services fought bitterly for shares of a far more limited military budget. In fact, for a funds-starved Army in the early 1960s, Vietnam was, in budgetary terms, its breakout moment. Now, budgetary war in Washington, missing-in-action for decades, is back, so the Secretary of Defense insisted.)

At West Point, but not at the Air Force Academy, think of Gates, then, as the Grim Reaper of military careers, telling the cadets that their future wouldn't be in giant, never-to-be-used tank forces and that he was worried about just how they would indeed be employed. As if to emphasize his point, on the very same day, another fading warrior, retiring Army Chief of Staff General George W. Casey, Jr., was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, even though dreaming of a future "sipping Coronas [and] watching sunsets on the beach in Scituate [Massachusetts]." There, he was to give his own valedictory to the Association of the US Army and the "Defense Industry," while making a most un-Gatesian plea for that same pot of gold.

Wielding an infamous Vietnam-era phrase, the general worried that unnamed government types already "think they see the light at the end of the Afghanistan tunnel" and so were clamoring to cut the Army's budget, even though the US remains in an "era of persistent conflict." He then issued this warning:

"A Nation weary of war, struggling to get its domestic economy going again, looks to cash in on a ‘Peace Dividend' and drastically cut back on defense. But, we've seen time and again that a ‘Peace Dividend' is, at best, a mirage and, at worst, a danger to the long-term security of our Country, our allies and our interests... [W]e simply cannot afford to dismantle this incredible Army that we have so painstakingly built over the past decade."

"We Have Never Once Gotten It Right"

Let's assume that, after so many years overseeing the Afghan War, Gates may, in fact, be a somewhat chastened man. Perhaps there is evidence of this in his carefully articulated reluctance (as well as that of Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen) to do the American thing and throw the US military at any problem—in this case, a no-fly-zone over Libya. It's certainly evidence that General Casey and the Secretary of Defense agree on one thing: they are dealing with a "stressed and tired" force. After two wars in a single decade, with a Global War on Terror thrown in, the thought of launching yet another campaign "in another country in the Middle East" might well leave any Secretary of Defense feeling sour.

Of course, given the twin disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, who on Earth would want to repeat them? Gates does seem, however provisionally, to be sidelining the recent Holy Grail of the US Army and its key commander, General David Petraeus: counterinsurgency, or COIN. If there are to be no more major land wars in Asia, then evidently US soldiers won't be spending much time "protecting the people" and "nation-building" either.

However briefly, Gates offered the cadets a glimpse of a different war-fighting future (one that sounded eerily reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld's once bright and shiny vision of a faster-than-lightning, "net-centric" Army lite). "The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations," Gates said, "is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions."

In other words, instead of "shock and awe," "regime change," and long-term occupations, he now imagines "counterterror" as well as air force and naval operations against "terrorists, insurgents, militia groups, rogue states, or emerging powers" that would be so decisive and effective as to "to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly—and controversial—large-scale American military intervention."

It sounds brilliantly un-Afghan, doesn't it?

In other words, Gates seems to have a better idea of how, in the future, to go in. What his speech lacked was any suggestion, no less analysis, of how to get out of the war that remains, for the months to come, his responsibility.

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