Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

War torn

| April 8, 2011

Gates should explain his warning on military force

SECRETARY OF Defense Robert Gates is a thoughtful man — with much to be thoughtful about. In a round of speeches to the service academies as he prepares to leave office, he has challenged America’s future military leaders to think more boldly about the future. His primary targets are the legacy weapons that have been the backbones of each service: carriers for the Navy, piloted aircraft for the Air Force, and heavy armor for the Army.

But in a Feb. 25 West Point speech, Gates proposed a radical prescription for defense policy. If his view were adopted, the “Gates Doctrine’’ would be his most important legacy. In his words: “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.’’

Say what? A large land army is fighting in Afghanistan today —and Gates was a major advocate of President Obama’s decision to triple-down there, bringing US land forces to 100,000.

As Gates’s zinger has reverberated through the defense establishment, he has issued a series of clarifications as well as a retraction: “I wish I hadn’t even had that sentence in the speech.’’ But none answers the basic question: What specifically did he mean?

Perhaps he has concluded that some of the following instances in which the United States sent big land armies into Asia or the Middle East were mistakes: Iraq in 2003, when President George W. Bush sent ground forces to topple Saddam Hussein; Bush’s decision to go into Afghanistan in 2001; President George H. W. Bush’s 1991 decision to send 500,000 troops to force Saddam to retreat from Kuwait; President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 decision to send 500,000 to fight, and ultimately lose, in Vietnam; and President Harry Truman’s 1950 decision to send an army of 500,000 to defend South Korea from invasion by North Korea. (Personally, I think the decisions by Truman and George H.W. Bush were sound, but those by Johnson, George W. Bush, and Obama were mistakes.)

Which of these wars does Gates believe were mistakes? He should say so and tell us why.

Among Gates’s heroes is a former military leader and president who proposed a similar presumption. Entering office with US troops stalemated on the Korean Peninsula, President Dwight Eisenhower settled for a tie and determined “never again.’’ A year later, when the French faced defeat at Dien Bien Phu and begged the United States to come to the rescue, Ike refused.

As the notes of a January 1954 National Security Council meeting record: “For himself, said the president with great force, he simply could not imagine the United States putting ground forces anywhere in Southeast Asia. There was just no sense in even talking about US forces replacing the French in Indochina. I cannot tell you, said the president with vehemence, how bitterly opposed I am to such a course of action.’’ Had LBJ heeded Ike’s advice, Washington would not have a Vietnam Memorial.

Richard Nixon, in seeking an end to America’s war in Vietnam, proposed a “Nixon Doctrine’’ for Asia. According to this doctrine, in future cases of aggression, the United States would “furnish military and economic assistance’’ but “not US boots on the ground, instead looking to the nation directly threatened to provide the manpower for its defense.’’

As he prepares to leave Washington, Gates is clearly having second thoughts about when and where and how the United States should — and should not — use military force. He is too great a secretary of defense to leave office without addressing the ambiguities of his provocative words; he should explain his view and invite debate over the longer-term policy implications of how to respond to Libya and other uprisings in the Middle East.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is a former assistant secretary of defense.

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For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“War torn.” The Boston Globe, April 8, 2011.