by Jim Lobe
In light of the chorus of criticism and contempt by neoconservatives and other hawks (like the Washington Post’s editorial board) leveled at President Barack Obama’s West Point speech last week, I found striking the similarities in basic viewpoints between his address and the concluding pages of Robert Gates’ memoir, Duty. Gates, of course, was the one major hold-over from the Bush administration, and, despite his service under Obama, was very, very rarely criticized by the usual suspects, particularly the neocons and their right-wing allies in Congress. Here he is on pages 591-3 in his book:
My time as secretary of defense reinforced my belief that in recent decades, American presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, have too often been too quick to reach for a gun — to use military force, despite all the realities I have been describing. They could have done worse than to follow the example of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his presidency, the Soviet Union became a thermonuclear power, China became a nuclear power, and there were calls for preventive war against both; the Joint Chiefs unanimously recommended that he use nuclear weapons to help the French in Vietnam; there were several crises with China related to Taiwan; a war in the Middle East; a revolution in Cuba; and uprisings in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. And yet after Eisenhower agreed to the armistice in Korea in the summer of 1953, not one American soldier was killed in action during his presidency. [Bear this passage in mind if you read Bob Kagan’s most recent treatise on how international peace and stability has depended and should continue to depend on U.S. military power since 1945.]
Too many ideologues call for the use of the American military as the first option rather than a last resort to address problems. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” as a justification for military intervention in Libya, Syria, the Sudan, and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to use military force in Libya, Syria, or Iran is deemed an abdication of American leadership and a symptom of a ‘soft’ foreign policy. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia was framed almost entirely in military terms as opposed to economic and political priorities. And so the rest of the world sees America, above all else, as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles, and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. [Emphasis added.]
I strongly believe America must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities. We are the “indispensable nation,” and few international problems can be addressed successfully without our leadership. But we also need to better appreciate that there are limits to what the United States — still by far the strongest and greatest nation on earth — can do in an often cruel and challenging world. The power of our military’s global reach has been an indispensable contributor to peace and stability in many regions and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis can or should elicit an American response.
I wrote in my first book in 1996 that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms. This is because our military leaders have seen the cost of war and its unpredictability, and they have too often sent their troops in harm’s way to execute ill-defined or unrealistic presidential objectives, with thin political support that evaporated when the going got tough or the fight became prolonged. Just as it did in “the necessary war” in Afghanistan.
There is one final lesson about war that we too often forget. We are enamored of technology and what it can do because of advances in precision, sensors, information, and satellite technology. A button is pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. A bomb destroys the targeted house on the right, leaving intact the one on the left. War has become for too many — among them defense “experts,” members of Congress, executive branch officials, and the American public as well — a kind of arcade video game or action movie, bloodless, painless, and odorless. But as I told a military audience at the National Defense University in September 2008, war is “inevitably tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.” I warned them to be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories, or doctrines that suggest otherwise. “Look askance,” I said, “at idealized, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war, where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared: where adversaries can be cowed, shocked, or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.” I quoted General William T. Sherman that “every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.” And I concluded with General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell’s warning that “no matter how a war starts, it ends in mud. It has to be slugged out — there are no trick solutions or cheap shortcuts.”
We must always be prepared and willing to use our military forces when our security, our vital interests, or those of our allies are threatened or attacked. But I believe the use of military force should always be a last resort and our objectives clearly and realistically defined (as in the Gulf War). And presidents need to be more willing and skillful in using tools in the national security kit other than hammers. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents. [Emphasis added.]
It seems to me that, if anything, the principles laid out by Obama in his West Point speech actually makes him more hawkish than Gates. Which makes me wonder once again why the hawks were so reluctant to attack Gates.
Photo: President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outside the Oval Office in the White House, June 16, 2009. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza