Streetwise Professor

April 3, 2011

Gates Blinks–But Not in the Way That You Think

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:56 am

There are additional calls for Robert Gates to resign, including here at CFR (a post by Elliott Abrams) and here at Information Dissemination (a good Navy blog).  The argument is the conventional one.  Gates is undermining the authority of the elected commander-in-chief.  QED.

Understandable and understood.  But Gates knows this.  He is no MacArthur.  He has been a very conventional, very loyal, civil servant for over 30 years.  He is more apparatchik than maverick.  He has never gone off the reservation.  Never.  He would, no doubt, agree with the conventional arguments–in conventional circumstances.

But by applying conventional templates to Gates’s behavior, his critics are completely overlooking the fact that when such a conventional man does something so uncharacteristic, there are reasons–and the reasons are likely to be quite disturbing.  I can conjecture what those reasons are, but that’s not really my point here.  Instead, the point is that the critics should take note of the extraordinary nature of what Gates has said, and try to determine why he said it.  What is going on behind the scenes that would compel Gates to do something that you have to know he would agree would be a firing offense in normal times?

The analogy that comes to my mind is that of US Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton, who blinked out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” in Morse Code when being questioned by his North Vietnamese captors in 1966. Like Denton, Gates is signaling that something very wrong is going on off camera.

Update: If, as is plausible, this New Republic explication (by Steven Metz) of the alleged logic behind the administration’s policy is correct, then Gates’s insurrection is quite understandable:

Clearly the Obama strategy is designed to find the middle ground between disengagement and domination. The idea seems to be to maximize flexibility by keeping all options open as long as possible. This is a good idea in a highly fluid situation. [Yes, keeping options open is sensible–but the essence of military force is imposing your choices on the enemy, and denying him options.]

. . . .

In a broader sense, President Obama is struggling to transcend American history. For two centuries, Americans have believed that any use of military power is war, and the objective in war is victory over the enemy. They have little tolerance for military operations that deviate from this pattern, such as the limited use of force in support of diplomacy or armed action leading to something other than decisive victory. [That’s Jacksonian America.]  After a foray into “limited war” from Korea to Vietnam, the United States walked away from the idea. What became known as the Weinberger-Powell principles argued that the U.S. military should never be committed unless vital interests are at stake—and then, only with the intention of clear victory. This became inculcated into the American strategic culture. And, since World War II, Americans have also come to expect that the United States will dominate any military operations in which it participates. The normal state of affairs, Americans believe, is for the United States to be is the senior partner in a coalition.

The Obama strategy represents a step away from the Weinberger-Powell principles and the notion that the United States must dominate any operation where its military is involved. Whether it works will be determined by the unpredictable whims of Muammar Qaddafi, the willingness of other states to take some or all of the burden off of America’s hands, and the president’s ability to sell the American public and its elected leaders on a strategy that runs counter to their tradition and inclinations. While Obama’s Libya strategy has a distinct logic, its success thus remains in the balance.  [We are ceding the initiative to Khaddafy?  This is a good thing? Really?  This is a “strategy”?]

“After a foray into ‘limited war’ from Korea to Viet Nam.”  Seriously.  Metz wrote that.  Thirty-five years and 100,000 dead Americans is a “foray”?

Here’s another way to put it: the Obama administration isn’t “transcending American history.”  It is failing to learn from it.  It is revisiting the failed policies of the past–as even it’s own defenders (e.g., Metz) are admitting, but claiming it is a feature not a bug.  It is doing its best to prove Marx right, re-enacting a tragedy as a farce.

Metz’s interpretation makes Obama’s policy appear very post-modern, making military action and victory and defeat all matters of semantics.  Post-modernism is heavy on the irony, and that’s here too as well.  For this administration–and its defenders–is chock-full of people who were strident in their criticism of the Viet Nam “foray”.

Weinberger-Powell was a reaction to Viet Nam.  It was the product of the military’s agonizing appraisal of what had gone wrong and how to avoid the repetition of these errors.  By casting Weinberger-Powell aside–consciously, if Metz is to be believed–Obama runs the grave risk of making the same mistakes that gave rise to it.  Gates is likely representing the views of the uniformed military that are grounded in this appraisal of Viet Nam, as updated and reinforced by the experiences in Iraq.  That is, most likely, the root of the SecDef’s insurrection.

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  1. When entering into armed conflict, it is imperative to match the force deployed to the objectives of the stated mission. As you mentioned earlier in the week, desert warfare requires a specific application of force to manage logistical and tactical constraints. If political constraints preclude the deployment of the assets necessary to manage logistical and tactical constraints, the force applied will not be matched to achieve the stated objectives. In layman’s terms this syndrome is know as “doomed to inevitable mission failure.” Gates know this well. I agree that the situation in Libya appears to be headed toward a protracted stalemate as long as both sides continue to have access to enough conventional arms to fight but not to prevail. Khaddafy will have his flow of arms restricted by NATO actions. The rebels will similarly have their flow of arms restricted by NATO’s unwillingness to escalate NATO involvement in the conflict. Gates appears to be playing chess while his critics are playing checkers. While his critics are clamoring for him to support the next move, he sees an eventual stalemate that he seems to feel it is his obligation to prevent. As military stalemate in Libya could equate to political checkmate in the Middle East and diminish our influence even further. While Obama struggles to develop a coherent, viable Middle East policy and clearly articulate our stated objectives, I agree with Gates that we should limit our involvement in Libya until and unless we are politically committed to deploying the military assets necessary to achieve our stated objectives.

    Comment by Charles — April 3, 2011 @ 9:54 am

  2. When SWP, Gates, and S/O disagree with you, then chances are you’re wrong.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — April 3, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

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