In an unusually revealing speech at West Point last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates effectively wrote off much of the country’s recent effort to prepare the weaponry and military configurations of the future; lamented that the armed forces spent too much time planning warand not enough in conducting useful activities; dismissed the possibility of war or major confrontations with other leading powers; and told the brass and officer candidates of the U.S. Army that in the next phase of American national security, most of the burden will be carried by the Navy and Air Force.
The secretary has an extensive interdisciplinary background. He was an academic Soviet and Russian expert, a long-serving intelligence professional (including service as director, and deputy director, of Central Intelligence), a memoirist, and an apparently successful university president. He has earned a reputation as a thoughtful and fearless Defense chief, completely independent both of the senior officers and the great defense contractors. He served on the Iraq Study Group, set up under former secretary of state James Baker and House foreign-affairs-committee chairman Lee Hamilton, which was essentially a bipartisan panel established to design as extensive and plausible a fig leaf as it could find to cover the retirement of the U.S. from Iraq, in tacit acknowledgement that the nation-building mission had not succeeded and would not succeed at any politically acceptable cost. It was heavily influenced by the friends of George H. W. Bush, and there were traces of family rivalry in its composition and mission statement. The ISG’s report eventually called for the accomplishment of every desirable but unattainable objective in the Middle East, including a resolution of disagreements between Israel and Palestine, as preconditions for success in Iraq, and strayed far afield from the pacification of that country then being rather indifferently pursued.
In the most creatively Machiavellian act of his career, President George W. Bush absorbed a midterm-election setback in 2006, sacked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, plucked Gates from the ISG in the latter stages of preparation of its blueprint for executing a cut-and-run in Iraq, and installed Gates at the Pentagon to do exactly the opposite of what the ISG was proposing, and supervise the surge, the insertion of two more divisions in Iraq with changed rules of engagement. It was an artistic tour of the political circle by George W., a man not much given to such nuanced policymaking: accepting the establishment of such a dovecote of a committee, enduring its deliberations, and then quietly dragooning one of its members to do exactly the opposite of the climbdown that the paternal and avuncular wiser heads were readying themselves, with unmistakable condescension, to advise. George W. doubled his Iraq bet in the face of great skepticism, and it has worked. U.S. troop withdrawals in Iraq, of about 70 percent of their high, have been accompanied by further reductions in violence and continuing economic progress, and inching progress toward better relations between the main communities of Iraq. The contemporary buildup in Afghanistan, somewhat following the Iraq model, has made very significant progress toward pacification of that country. This Secretary of Defense shares in the credit for these successes.
The era of confrontations between large armies, Mr. Gates asserts, is over, and what is more likely is the projection of powers of interdiction from the air and sea, with an amphibious-insertion capacity of more modest and less heavily armored manpower levels. This reflects the fact that the other major powers are unlikely to attack outwards with large standing armies, as was feared throughout the Cold War in central Europe and Korea, and on the Chinese periphery. Russia has no ability to threaten, much less intimidate, Western Europe; the prospects of China conducting a land invasion of its neighbors are effectively zero. Though China is the greatest military power in east Asia (other than the nuclear capabilities in that theater of the U.S.), the steady military buildup of the Japanese, Indians, and others indicate that no imbalance of force in the theater will arise that cannot be corrected by American assistance through the Seventh Fleet and other forces deployed in the area. General MacArthur famously said in his address to the Congress in 1951 that “No man in his right mind . . . would commit an army to continental China,” and Gates, invoking the same source, applied the same standard to large-scale deployments to anywhere in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (Europe and the Americas are not under consideration under any currently believable scenario).