As Robert Gates plans his exit from distinguished service as Secretary of Defense, he has made a number of public appearances involving provocative comments on foreign and defense policy. His remarks in a speech that any President who considers committing significant ground troops to a land war in Asia or the Middle East “should have his head examined” received considerable attention, as did his comment that he has grown wary of “wars of choice” as opposed to “wars of necessity”. He leaves to our speculation precisely what criteria should be applied to this distinction, but the implication is that our engagement in Iraq would be in the former column. Presumably these details will surface after he is comfortable in retirement.
Two of his points in particular deserve considerably more attention than they have so far received. One is that NATO has become a “two-tiered alliance”, with diminishing abilities to mount operations and that unless Europe increases its commitment, NATO faces “collective military relevance” and a “dim and dismal future”. The other is his reminder that history clearly shows that when America turns inward, big wars often result, the message being that we should avoid across the board defense budget cuts that will damage our response capability and our preparedness. The convergence of these two contingencies would be devastating for world order.
Granted, NATO is a Cold War relic, but unless and until a better configuration of the Western democracies surfaces it is the primary instrument of collective Western response to military threats and intimidation, and Europe should be on notice that the days are numbered for the current level of American subsidy of its defense responsibilities.
As for defense budget cuts by the U. S., it is increasingly clear that a growing tendency toward isolation is underway, from both the political right and left, and given the already well advanced public frustration with our military entanglements it would not be surprising to hear a McGovernite call to “come home America” from significant voices in next year’s election campaign. To the extent that this sentiment infects budget deliberations, it will represent a dangerous prospect for us and the world. And I might add that the “Dennis Kucinich Republicans” are no help with their newly minted isolationism and their cynical attacks on Obama’s policy in Libya based on the War Powers Act of all things!
Let’s hope that, before he leaves office, Secretary Gates will devote considerable time and effort to making these points loudly and clearly, both publicly and privately to the President.