Monday, May 17, 2010

Robert Gates' new presentation of the military's strategic needs

I mentioned in the previous post an article by McClatchy's Nancy Youssef in which she cites the article by Bush-Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Helping Others Defend Themselves: The Future of U.S. Security Assistance" Foreign Affairs May/June 2010, as a broad statement of an allegedly new perspective on counterinsurgency wars that Pentagon-related sources are promoting. In this post, I'm relying on the full version publicly available at; all but the first four paragraphs are behind subscription at the Foreign Affairs website.

As such articles or speeches by senior administration officials typically are, this one mostly presents concepts on a fairly high level of abstraction. So I'll focus here on some items that raise important concerns.

Gates uses it as an I-feel-your-pain type sales pitch in this article. But it's worth noting that he says in it:

As a career CIA officer who watched the military's role in intelligence grow ever larger, I am keenly aware that the Defense Department, because of its sheer size, is not only the 800-pound gorilla of the U.S. government but one with a sometimes very active pituitary gland.
Yes, the Secretary of Defense for both Cheney-Bush and Obama is saying that the Pentagon is so huge it inevitably throws its weight around in the unending contests for budget resources in a way that no civilian agency is capable of doing.

What he means by its "very active pituitary gland" is a bit enigmatic. Presumably, he is referring to its role as a growth hormone. The Pituitary Network Association defines that part of its role this way: "the pituitary gland produces growth hormone for normal development of height."

But their definition also includes this:

The pituitary is a small, pea-sized gland located at the base of the brain that functions as "The Master Gland." From its lofty position above the rest of the body it sends signals to the thyroid gland, adrenal glands, ovaries and testes, directing them to produce thyroid hormone, cortisol, estrogen, testosterone, and many more. These hormones have dramatic effects on metabolism, blood pressure, sexuality, reproduction, and other vital body functions.
So the Secretary of Defense could be said to be implying that the Pentagon has an inappropriately central influence on the federal government as a whole.

Like I say, it's more of a sales line. But it's worth remembering the next time some conservative commentator suggests that it's "anti-military" for anyone to make comments along the same lines. Gates also repeats his earlier public comment about the danger of the "creeping militarization" in US foreign policy.

Gates' article presents several red flags to me. One is this:

... there continues to be a struggle for legitimacy, loyalty, and power across the Islamic world between modernizing, moderate forces and the violent, extremist organizations epitomized by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other such groups.
This is essentially the neoconservative framework for the Global War on Terror (GWOT). In most of the Islamic world, groups of Al Qa'ida's type are not serious contenders for power or mass influence in any meaningful sense of the word. If we had to describe some two side characterizing politics in Islamic countries, Islamic modernizers that don't take anything like the "jihadist" approach to politics and conservative Islamic dictators of various sorts would be a more realistic pair. Al Qa'ida itself probably doesn't exist in anything much resembling its 2001 form, although their jihadist ideology has inspired many other extremist groups. But elevating such small, extremist bands - however dangerous they might be as terrorist threats - into one of the two powers likely to dominate the entire Islamic world in the foreseeable future is major-league threat inflation.

This threat inflation is probably reflected in an odd precedent he cites to suggest a shift from direct combat to what he calls "partner building capacity," which primarily means playing the role of providing aid and assistance to governments fighting opposition groups that the US wants to specially target. He uses the example of US weapons and equipment to Great Britain and the Soviet Union in the early months of the Second World War, "the period before the United States entered World War II." Ever since then, the analogies our policymakers use have had us going to war with essentially nobody but Hitler. North Korea's Kim Il Sung was Hitler, Ho Chi Minh was Hitler, Saddam Hussein was Hitler, now Osama bin Laden hiding out somewhere is Hitler.

But there is an obvious other side to Gates' Second World War analogy. He refers to the time before US entry into the war. Those examples of military assistance to (technically informal) allies was followed by the biggest foreign war in US history. In this case, it was not the military aid that caused the US to enter the war. But eemingly small commitments of military assistance can often start looking like an investment too big to fail. A failure in the initial levels of aid can easily lead to threat inflation of the opposition, which leads to larger commitments, which means that United States Prestige is on the line even more, and we can't afford to back down or [insert your favorite version of the Munich analogy here].

He opens the article by saying:

In the decades to come, the most lethal threats to the United States' safety and security -- a city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack -- are likely to emanate from states that cannot adequately govern themselves or secure their own territory. Dealing with such fractured or failing states is, in many ways, the main security challenge of our time.
This is also a favorite neoconservative justification for widespread interventions. It's also a very misleading formulation. Bin Laden may have been in Afghanistan, his presence tolerated by the Afghan government under Mullah Omar and the Taliban during the planning of the 9/11 attacks. But most of the actual planning and logistics for them were done in Germany and the United States by the plotters involved. Bin Laden at the time had concentrations of personnel in Afghanistan, a model that Al Qa'ida and other jihadists abandoned after the US attacks took a heavy toll on the Al Qa'ida cadres of 2001. And, though it's heresy to the neocons and most Republicans, the anti-terrorism fight is primarily a matter of national and international law-enforcement as well as necessary security precautions in such places as airplanes, an approach which is infinitely more cost-effective in combatting the actual terrorist threat than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been.

And, as evidenced by the number of violent attacks, killings and foiled plots of the last couple of years, domestic far-right groups are currently the most significant source of potential terrorist threats on American targets. And outside of that same far-right milieu, I don't know of anyone who would describe the United States itself as a failed state. Gates' formulation, in which he has to be presumed to be speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, is an inaccurate statement of the sources of current terrorist threats.

Gates argues for approaching counterinsurgency commitments by "building the institutional capacities) such as defense ministries)" and "the human capital (including leadership skills and attitudes) needed to sustain security over the long term" for regimes we choose to favor with our help. He cites Lebanon, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines as examples of some countries where we have successfully done this in the previous years of the GWOT. It strikes me that there has been painfully little Congressional investigation or mainstream news coverage or public debate over our "assistance interventions" (to coin my own phrase) in any of those five countries but Pakistan. That relative secrecy and lack of scrutiny from outside the Executive Branch or even outside the Pentagon is surely a very appealing aspect of this proposal to Gates and many of our infallible generals.

Another particular red flag for me in Gates' article comes near the end:

Convincing other countries and leaders to be partners of the United States, often at great political and physical risk, ultimately depends on proving that the United States is capable of being a reliable partner over time. To be blunt, this means that the United States cannot cut off assistance and relationships every time a country does something Washington dislikes or disagrees with.
He mentions earlier that prior to the 9/11 attacks:

... Washington cut off military-to-military exchange and training programs with Pakistan, for well-intentioned but ultimately shortsighted - and strategically damaging - reasons.
The main well-intentioned but shortsighted reason was Pakistan's role as the greatest purveyor of nuclear proliferation. This may be the most disturbing single piece of Gates' article. Containing nuclear proliferation is a more vital interest of the United States than fighting terrorism. Though the two are obviously related in some ways.

Gates is suggesting a kind of once-in-never-out theory of US military assistance. His statement about "being a reliable partner over time" only makes sense if it means taking cuts in military assistance off the table as a diplomatic tool. Which would be even more of that creeping militarization of US foreign policy about which he claims to be concerned. Since our military aid dwarfs other forms of foreign aid, taking military assistance off the table as a potential tool of diplomatic pressure would drastically reduce the United States' ability to use normal tools of diplomacy. This is true with Pakistan and India on nonproliferation issues. It's true of Israel, where only a significant reduction in US military aid is ever going to bring them to halt and reverse the settlement policy in the West Bank, a goal which is at least nominally the official policy of the United States. And there are many other situations where that would be the case, as well.

All in all, I don't see a lot that's encouraging when it comes to a more realistic and pragmatic military policy in Gates' article.

Tags: ,

| +Save/Share | |

Links to this post:

Create a Link


"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


  • What is the Blue Voice?
  • Bruce Miller
  • Fdtate
  • Marcia Ellen (on hiatus)
  • Marigolds2
  • Neil
  • Tankwoman
  • Wonky Muse


  • Our endless wars
  • A picture is worth ... etc.
  • Joschka Fischer's Die Linke nach dem Sozialismus (...
  • Jackson State killings, May 14, 1970
  • Neoliberalism and the Democrats
  • Neoliberalism and the left (2)
  • Tea Partying against immigrants in the Deep South
  • Neoliberalism and the Democratic Party
  • Day of Europe, and immigration in the EU
  • Greece's financial woes and the future of the euro...



    [Tip: Point cursor to any comment to see title of post being discussed.]
    www TBV




    Environmental Links
    Gay/Lesbian Links
    News & Media Links
    Organization Links
    Political Links
    Religious Links
    Watchdog Links



    Atom/XML Feed
    Blogarama - Blog Directory
    Blogwise - blog directory



    hits since 06-13-2005

    site design: wonky muse