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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 3:01 AM EST

Recently, journalist Dexter Filkins wrote a review of Bing West's new book, The Wrong War, in the New York Times. As much as anything else, it offered a devastating portrait of counterinsurgency ("a new kind of religion") in Afghanistan as a failed faith. Filkins, who covered both Iraq and Afghanistan for the Times, concludes that counterinsurgency has failed big time in the Afghan context, creating only a "vast culture of dependency: Americans are fighting and dying, while the Afghans by and large stand by and do nothing to help them." Gates may well agree.

Filkins also seems unconvinced that slipping more COINs in the Afghan slot machine will improve the situation significantly. ("[N]othing short of a miracle will give [Americans] much in return.") For all we know, Gates may agree with this, too.

Here's the catch: nearly 10 years into our second Afghan War, Filkins simply can't seem to imagine a way out of the failed effort, or much else but more of the same. It's there that the discussion simply ends for him, as it does for the Secretary of Defense, as it does, generally speaking, for Washington.

Gates himself is now preparing to depart (some might say jump ship) with his war still at a boil. At West Point, he had advice galore for the next Secretary of Defense, and yet it's striking that his speech avoided a serious look at Afghanistan and how to end his war. He was perfectly willing to offer the cadets a window into the future on a range of subjects—on almost anything, in fact, but that war.

When it came to his primary responsibility, however, all he offered was this fragment of a sentence, a reference assumedly to American contingency-based drawdown plans to remove "combat troops," but not tens of thousands of trainers and other forces by the end of 2014: "...after large US combat units are substantially drawn down in Afghanistan..." (In his subsequent address to the Air Force Academy, he denied that anything he said at West Point was an attack on "the wisdom of our involvement in Afghanistan.")

The Secretary of Defense was clear on one thing: it's a joke to imagine that you can predict the future trajectory of war, American-style. "And I must tell you," he said in his second most quotable set of lines, "when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more—we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."

And yet he still dreams of those future "swift-moving expeditionary forces" heading towards places which will surely maintain that "perfect record."

Of course, it's worth remembering that not everybody got everything wrong. In response to most of those wars, there were antiwar movements, large or small, that said: wrong place, wrong time, wrong idea, get out. And not all of this happened retrospectively either. In the specific case of Iraq, for instance, an enormous antiwar movement preceded the war and offered this piece of clear advice in no uncertain terms: don't do it!

That movement was right. The war-makers were wrong. Yet no one from that movement is taken seriously in the mainstream media or in Washington to this day.

Here's something important to remember: Vietnam did not start out as "Vietnam," nor Iraq as "Iraq," nor Afghanistan as "Afghanistan." The fabulous dreams of doing it right always precede the horrific wars and, time after time, those in power never seem to feel MacArthur's urge not to do it. Somehow, they never imagine that, sooner or later, disaster and blowback will be in the offing, though based on recent history that's the only reasonable prediction to make in such circumstances.

Almost a decade after we invaded Afghanistan and "triumphed," our latest "wise men"—in Washington and in the media—are still at a loss. The inability to win or be reasonably successful over so many years has, by now, penetrated almost, but not quite, never quite, to the core, leaving them bereft of solutions, except for continuing without serious hope. And when it comes to this, too, for those who remember Vietnam, there's nothing new under the sun.

Unexamined Heads

The problem isn't that no one can predict the next war. It's that so many heads in Washington go unexamined. As a result, our leaders are desperately behind the learning curve of Americans generally.

Perhaps this is the moment to offer a simple future lesson for the Secretary of Defense—if not the one who will leave office in 2011 with the Afghan War still roaring along, then the next one—and here it is: it doesn't really matter whether you go in big with tanks and counterinsurgency-style nation-building on the brain or small with a counterterror-lite footprint backed by air power.

The issue Gates, like his peers, still focuses on is how to go in better. The issue that needs to be focused on isn't the "how to" but the going in.

The lesson that Washington still seems incapable of drawing from its endless experience of such wars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is this: don't go in, because the Age of Intervention is over.

It really doesn't matter whether ours is "the finest military in the world," as Gates assured the cadets, or "the finest fighting force that the world has ever known"as our presidents have taken to saying. It doesn't matter that the US Army is battle-hardened and that it has years of counterinsurgency experience under its belt. It doesn't matter whether we favor the Navy and the Air Force over the Army in our future wars. What matters is going to war. What matters is the illusion that military power is our key problem-solver, our go-to position of choice.

It's time, once and for all, to lock the gates. It's time to use the US military only in the genuine defense of this country.

It doesn't seem like the hardest lesson in human history to grasp, but it has been: don't go in. This isn't a utopian's recipe, but a realist's. You just have to remind yourself that your intervention will never turn out the way you fantasize or plan, no matter what your fantasies or plans may be.

Let me say it one more time because I know no one's listening: don't do it.

Afterward, write your 832-page books, enjoy your honors, duke it out with journalists, but when you're Secretary of Defense, your job is to defend America against the urge to intervene. Intervention doesn't work. Not in the long run, often not in the short one either. Not these days. Not at all.

Your job is somehow, in a Washington that can't imagine such a thing, to turn ever again into never again.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books). To listen to a TomCast audio version of this post, read by Ralph Pochoda, click here or download it to your iPod, here.

[Note of thanks to: Jim Peck for helping spark this one, Ralph Pochoda for reading the TomCast audio version so sonorously, and the indispensible Christopher Holmes for applying his remarkable proofreading eye not just to this piece but to every TomDispatch piece. A deep bow to all three. In addition, for those of you eager to keep up on American war and fast-moving events in the Middle East, be sure to check out three sites that I find invaluable and visit daily: Juan Cole's Informed Comment website, Paul Woodward's War in Context website, and of course]

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