Bob Gates and the future of defense thinking

Now that Bob Gates is officially going to stay on as Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration, it’s worthwhile to refresh our understanding of his thinking.

I’ve written about Gates several times in this blog, as I’m a fan, and by the way it’s nice to have a blog in which you can point out your own prescience – since no one else will (damn it!), and my wife is tired of hearing about how I’m always right.  But sometimes you notice that you were wrong – and yet you’re happy to have been wrong.  I wrote about attending a Bob Gates speech back on May 16, 2008, with these words:

Seeing Gates deliver this speech really impressed me, to be honest. He comes across as sincerely dedicated to fixing some of the fundamental problems of DoD and the intelligence community… I sat there wondering whether Gates would be willing to continue at the Pentagon in the next Administration (odds are much higher of that with a McCain victory, obviously, and infinitesimal otherwise).”

So much for my insight into Barack Obama’s thinking!  Or perhaps progress in Iraq and the demands of Afghanistan changed his thinking as well.

In the past few days two colleagues have encouraged me to read Gates’s new article in the upcoming Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age.”  So I took the advice of Joe Mazzafro of Oracle, and Ambrose Lewis of SAIC, and read the article. There are echoes of those several striking keynote speeches Sec. Gates has given over the past year, as he gained control over what he inherited from Don Rumsfeld and as he began revealing his own priorities and strategic goals.  But the article is a helpful – and smart – delineation of American military policy and priorities now.

The journal’s own “summary” tagline for the article is misleadingly banal: “The Pentagon has to do more than modernize its conventional forces; it must also focus on today’s unconventional conflicts — and tomorrow’s.”  In fact, there’s quite a bit of interest in this rich article, and much of it comes across as a reversal of the “Revolution in Military Affairs” thinking of the Rumsfeld era.  Adam Eklus provides a quick primer on the state of that argument in his new Huffington Post piece “Debate Some Doctrine,” calling for “a wide-ranging — and public — debate over military doctrine and strategy.” 

Perhaps Eklus underestimates the degree to which Sec. Gates has already been voicing that debate, and publicly.  Here’s what I took as the core passage of the Foreign Affairs article, and it underlines how Gates will work within the Obama presidency:

I have learned many things in my 42 years of service in the national security arena. Two of the most important are an appreciation of limits and a sense of humility. The United States is the strongest and greatest nation on earth, but there are still limits on what it can do. The power and global reach of its military have been an indispensable contributor to world peace and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, or every crisis can or should elicit a U.S. military response.

We should be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor, information, and satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do. The Taliban were dispatched within three months; Saddam’s regime was toppled in three weeks. A button can be pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck will explode in Mosul. A bomb dropped from the sky can destroy a targeted house while leaving the one next to it intact.

But no one should ever neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of warfare. War is inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain, and it is important to be skeptical of systems analyses, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. We should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission, instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

 It’s hard to imagine the burden of being a Secretary of Defense with the paired responsibilities of winning wars and yet making them safer for U.S. military forces.  Sherman’s words must be a humbling daily reminder to Gates of how tough a challenge he has just renewed by choosing to remain in office. Frankly, it’s nearly an unfathomable job today. He need not quote Sherman’s more famous words, “War is hell.”

I encourage you to read the article and post any thoughts.

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3 Responses

  1. Secretary Gates as a professional intelligence officer is more prescient about the future of warfare than the generals or admirals. The admirals especially want a near peer naval power that will engage in force on force and Gates is eruditely saying “are you on drugs?!?” We have to prepare for the wars we are fighting and not the ones the war college grad want to fight and keep planning to fight.

    Secretary Gates is going to get a strong ally in forcing DoD to plan for the wars we are fighting vice planning for the wars the military prefers in National Security Adviser Jim Jones. They will be a forceful team for the security of our nation joemaz


  2. I agree with Joe. We’re lucky Gates agreed to stay on. Don’t know much about Jones (yet) but hope you’re right.


  3. I hope gates will say stuff like that loudly and publicly. actually challenge the admirals, generals, and armchair nutjobs from the stndpoint of “get real” and return to the policy of paying for waht we can afford. aggressive diplomacy doesn’t cost near as much as shock-and-awe nonsense.


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