In my recent post, Obama’s Wars, A Book Report, I commented on the contributions of
various top officials, including Thomas E. Gates, the Secretary of Defense. In the context of passionate discussions over war strategies past, current and future, I said this about Gates:
Defense Secretary Gates presents as a surprisingly indecisive bureaucrat who routinely waited to see which way the president was leaning before venturing his own opinion.
Today I read an article about Gates in Parade Magazine that offers, at least to me, a possible explanation for his behavior during those discussions. The article is an interview of Gates written by David Gergen, a smart man whom I consider markedly non-partisan. “A Legacy of Leadership” describes a man with a deep sense of history and respect for his country and its military institutions. These words in particular struck me as profound:
Gergen: What do the next 10 years look like on the national-security front?
Gates: . . . Yet after Iraq and Afghanistan, presidents will be loath to undertake preemptive war. Once a war starts, there is no controlling the outcome; (emphasis mine) it ends up costing so much more in lives and money than anybody anticipated.
So, there sat Secretary Gates as the National Security Council debated the issues as the
others sought answers to unanswerable questions. “How did we get into this mess? How do we deal with these unreliable allies? How can we fight a guerilla war against religious fanatics halfway around the world? How do we strike the bad guys dead without inflaming hatred among the Islamic populace?” So, based on the above quote I will now guess, on my own responsibility, what Robert Gates was probably thinking:
Well, they’re in the stew now. We are committed to the fray – there’s no going back once we are in it. No matter what new strategy they all come up with, the important thing is that we actually have a strategy, one plan that we all eventually air to the public and the allies, and even more importantly, one that shows the troops that we do have a plan that makes some sense, one that’s not “forever war with no exit.”
It would serve little purpose for me to sit here and split hairs over just how we are going to do it because nobody has a crystal ball in this room. We have the greatest and best-equipped fighting force in the world, an outstanding force of well-paid, volunteer young people and, regardless of the specific strategy we will get the job done just like we always have. And when the battlefield changes, as it always does, we will adjust, just like we always have. The important role for me here is to make sure they don’t do anything really stupid now that we’re in the soup, and then I must use my last year to carry out my mission as well as I can.
Read the article. Secretary Robert Gates is a national treasure, in my opinion, and I for one am grateful for his service.