Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.
Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.
Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.
First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.
While Gates is certainly right that the decision to utilize military force should not be taken lightly, he fails to consider what happens should resistance to military force allow problems to spread. Take the case of Syria: Two and a half years ago, the United States had the way but not the will to catalyze the conflict’s end and President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster before Syria became a magnet for international jihadism. The opposition had radicalized today not only to the extent that it dooms Syria but also will threaten many other countries throughout the region as their citizens fighting with radicals in Syria return home. Moroccan security experts believe, for example, that perhaps 600 Moroccans have joined jihadi groups inside Syria. Tunisia, Jordan, and Turkey will face similar blowback, all of which more decisive action in a limited window might have prevented. Likewise, while the Obama administration celebrated its “leading from behind” approach toward Libya, the American desire to take a hands-off approach to the situation on the ground meant that no one secured ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s weapons caches. Not only will we eventually pay the price for the surface-to-air missiles which went missing, but the collapse of Mali into civil war was a direct result of the resulting flow of Libyan weapons to terrorist movements across the Sahel.
Gates also seems not to understand the danger of signaling emptiness to American red lines. Not only during the Obama administration, but also during the Republican and Democratic administrations which preceded him, a tremendous gap has developed between the rhetoric of policy and its reality. That encourages international rogues to test the line. When they become too overconfident or improperly assess American resolve, the result can be devastating.
Gates’ frustration when testifying in Congress also gained press attention. “I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit,” he wrote, adding, “It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.” Again here his umbrage is dangerous. Anyone who has testified before Congress knows that they are mere props for representatives and senators who are speaking more for the television or their constituents than to the item at hand. Still, the job of Congress is oversight and the notion either that such oversight should be mitigated for the ego of a secretary, or that the thin skins of senior executives within the United States government mean that words must be crafted to a kindergarten code is nonsense. Had the Pentagon’s own congressional liaisons done a better job, perhaps such exchanges would not have been so testy, but the Pentagon’s congressional liaisons are not the most effective bunch, as the culture of the Pentagon does not encourage the type of glad-handing, back-slapping, alcohol-imbibing culture that permeates Congress and its staff.
It would be nice if everyone was nice and demonstrated class, but if senior officials cannot put up with the likes of Carl Levin, John McCain, or Rand Paul, then they should not be trusted to deal with Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. That said, had the cynicism of Obama, Biden, and Clinton really frustrated Gates to the extent he suggests, then he should have quit for, by doing so, he literally could have put his money where his mouth was and changed the debate when it still mattered.