Gates: Winding down the Wars

Outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley on Sunday, and he sees a diminished American superpower on the horizon. Gates foresaw the winding down of the Afghanistan War, a slow grinding ultimate victory for NATO in Libya, fairly deep cuts in the war department budget on the horizon, but a residual force of American troops in Iraq. He again lambasted NATO allies for not keeping up with the massive US spending on armaments and military technology. He insisted on the US remaining a superpower, because of its interests in the world, and maintained that it has been a world power since the late 19th century.

While it is true that the US conquered the Philippines in the aftermath of the war with Spain in the very late 19th and early 20th century, it is incorrect to see the US as a great power in that period. Despite its one large colonial possession and its informal interventions in Latin America, the US was a relatively minor player in world affairs and had a small military. Holland, with its Indonesian possessions and its great navy, was probably of more consequence.

Gates’s idea of our historical arc distorts our history as a relatively un-militarized Republic until World War II and its aftermath, when we became a nuclear-armed behemoth. And enormous outlays on weapons, technology and war in just the last decade, as Karen Greenberg points out, further distort this arc. Rather than Gates’s steady state over a century, we should see US militarization as a steep upward graph with a stark vertical denouement at the far right.

Gates confirmed that the US State Department has for the past few weeks been negotiating directly with the Taliban. He seemed to expect something eventually to come of those negotiations. NATO allies are afraid that the US will go for a quick fix at the upcoming Bonn conference. It should be noted that the US government probably had preferred that those negotiations remain secret, but they were outed by our erratic and often hateful so-called ally, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai.

AP reports:

As the Guardian noted, the direct talks with Taliban leaders are likely an outcome of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Usamah Bin Laden.

Outgoing US ambassador Karl Eikenberry blasted Karzai over the weekend in Herat for the various uncomplimentary things Karzai has had to say about the US in recent months, including branding them as on the verge of becoming foreign occupiers. Eickenberry according to State Department cables revealed by wikileaks thinks Karzai is flaky and “paranoid.”

The big debate in Washington is how many US troops President Obama should take out of Afghanistan this year, beginning in July. Senator Carl Levin has suggested 15,000. While it had been thought last year that the incoming Tea Party Republicans would attempt to forestall the drawdown, the Afghanistan War has suddenly become so unpopular that Republican presidential hopefuls are beginning to campaign against it. It appears that Obama will get pressure from both the right and the left to begin a relatively steep withdrawal. Gates clearly does not like this idea. He points out, though, that Obama put an extra 65,000 troops into Afghanistan, so there were be a lot of US military personnel in that country next year this time, no matter what.

Gates says he thinks Afghanistan will end as Iraq did, with the local government and army supplying just good enough security as the US draws down. There are many contradictions here. First, Gates doesn’t think Iraq is ready for a complete US withdrawal, even now. Second, the Iraqi military and Iraq officers and officials are from a literate, industrialized society and have capacities that their Afghan equivalents mostly do not. Third, al-Maliki leads the majority Shiites of the country and has good relations with the Kurds. Karzai’s constituency seems notably less broad, and the forces arrayed against him larger and more determined. Fourth, Gates’s conviction that 25% of Afghanistan is now under the effective control of the Afghanistan National Army and that turning over the rest of the country to it, province by province, is unproblematic, is probably wildly and uncharacteristically optimistic.

Speaking of Iraq, Gates is campaigning with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to make a deal to put some number of US troops into Iraq in January 2012, despite the Status of Forces Agreement that specifies all US troops out of that country by the end of 2011. Gates portrays Iraq as beset by radical Shiite militias acting on behalf of Iran, and maintains that they are now more dangerous than ‘al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.’ The most active Shiite political movements in Iraq are, however, the most nativist, and they typically dislike Iran. That scruffy urban street youth in Nasiriya or Diwaniya following Muqtada al-Sadr can be seen as cat’s paws of an Iran they viscerally mistrust is a longstanding American fallacy. Iraq does not need US troops to protect it from its own majority Shiites. Al-Maliki himself is head of the fundamentalist Shiite al-Da`wa (Islamic Mission) Party, and has warm relations with Iran (even warmer since Wahhabi Saudi Arabia put troops into Shiite-majority Bahrain).

As for US troops being killed in Iraq, it is the very prospect of Gates succeeding in keeping them there that has caused violence against them to spike. When it was understood that they were leaving, the attacks on them declined enormously. (Likewise, the press to somehow keep Western troops in Iraq has caused renewed violence against Western interests generally. Today there was a bombing of a French embassy car in south Baghdad that wounded 7 Iraqis.

Although Gates professed himself optimistic that al-Maliki would ask for US troops for 2012, al-Maliki himself has kicked it to his cabinet, which is made up of representatives of the country’s major political blocs. I would give the chances of the cabinet coming to a decision on this matter in time for it to matter as low. That is, they will likely keep discussing the matter past January 2012 when all US troops are out, and then putting some back in would be a hot potato no one would be willing to take up.

Gates is worried about big across-the-board cuts to the Defense Department budget (which is as big as the next 20 or so countries combined). He says he has grown disillusioned with ‘wars of choice’ like that in Iraq, and says any president who goes to war again in Africa or the Middle East should have his head examined.

We are witnessing a belated fin-de-siecle in American confidence (or perhaps we should call it what it is, arrogance), exemplified in a tired old Realist ushering the US, a bit against his instincts, out of superpowerdom and into an age of limits and multilateralism. Even the Libya War, of the prosecution of which he has been bitingly critical, will turn out all right, he thinks, because NATO will stay in the fight and remain united. That is a multilateralist sentiment. It isn’t what we were hearing from Washington in 2003. One has a sense of an age passing, and to the extent that the age was characterized by unilateral adventurism, its demise will benefit us all.

21 Responses

  1. We are witnessing a belated fin-de-siecle

    We can only hope that the US military follies of the past decade constitute an extinction burst.

  2. “One has a sense of an age passing, and to the extent that the age was characterized by unilateral adventurism, its demise will benefit us all.”

    Lets hope so.

    Gates did not hesitate to speak out about his stand against an intervention in Libya.

    Why would he try to spin that the US was a super power so far back?

    What is happening with the oil in Iraq? Where is Ahmed Chalabi?

    Does it piss the Iraqi people off that the people who have been killed, injured, displaced in that country as a direct result of the invasion are barely whispered about in this country?

    • I hear Xe/Blackwater and Halliburton and any number of our Kleptocratic Overlords, including Our Florida Governor, Skeletor Scott, and hiring lots of Seeecurity Staff people… And Matt Yglesias is happy that there will be lots of opportunities for unlicensed yoga instructors and other personal servants…

      On the other hand, if you wander around in the ex-GI sites like and various veterans’ sites, you read stuff that is redolent of the kind of emotional content and sense of gross betrayal that led up to the Bonus March…

      • Funny you should mention the Bonus March. Not long after that, a cabal of right-wing tycoons led by a member of the DuPont clan organized a conspiracy that sounds strikingly modern: the creation of an Astroturf crypto-fascist militia from the unemployed veterans that would outnumber the Regular Army of 1933 (80,000), then use it to intimidate Roosevelt into abandoning the New Deal.

        Luckily, FDR fought back, after Gen. Smedley Butler informed him that he’d been approached by these bastards and what their plans were.

        • Yeah, I knew about the “Business Plot,” link to ,from a jaded old history prof and reading about Butler. The thing is, I bet there are a lot of people who would “react badly” to a coup, including a lot of past and present GIs.

  3. I propose that the empire building of the US post-wwii, was a result of a sickness that afflicted most Americans; wanting to ignore internal suffering, insecurity and major inappropriate actions, they looked elsewhere for less powerful people with whom to mess (as a diversion). That corruption, and the resultant interfering with vast regions of the world, is continuing to increase up to and including here in 2011.

    Intellectual prostitutes like Gates provide totally made up, never bearing fruit, always wrong views of the world, which are fed to a gullible American public, who continue to vote in the scoundrels in both parties, and this charade continues.

    It is like watching a seventy year long play about how stupid humans brilliantly repeatedly find totally unworkable situations to embrace.

  4. It seems fairly obvious that wanton and reckless commitment of military force to wars and operations that were not adequately thought out or were terribly ill-advised will be scaled back in the current political climate.

    A growing amount of Congress members have finally come to realize that being too quick to deploy ground forces over long periods of time has been an error. This is particularly so when much of the rest of the world seems extremely reluctant to become involved in these endeavors.

    The population is extremely annoyed at politicians and generals that seem to require year after year to end the existing military commitments.

    The main question is what is going to happen in Afghanistan.

  5. Gates is definitely not helping NATO with his constant questionable critiques of the European allies.

    It was a huge gaffe when he tried to suggest that many in Europe were heavily responsible for the increasing separation of Turkey from the West and the trends in its foreign policy.

  6. the war with Spain marks the beginning and came at a time when we had developed the economic underpinning for Great Power aspiration.
    Gates isn’t really errant.

  7. “Gates portrays Iraq as beset by radical Shiite militias acting on behalf of Iran, and maintains that they are now more dangerous than ‘al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.’”

    Yes, it’s another tremendous American success story.

    but then, who could possibly have foreseen that this might be the outcome of the invasion of Iraq?

  8. —American confidence (or perhaps we should call it what it is, arrogance)—-

    simplistic (and rather waspish) nomination of what it really is and absolutely inconsistent and shallow coming from someone who champions the UN as the hope of the world and said that it was founded to prevent mass murders.

    rather obviously, the UN is a product of that American confidence/arrogance and will be ineffective without it.

    • And yet, everybody in America to the right of Gates loudly proclaims that the UN is an evil Communist conspiracy that usurps our Constitution.

      Remember, when the UN was founded, the only independent countries that existed that could be members were in Europe, the Americas, and a few small states like Thailand and Ethiopia. Otherwise, white as a Klan rally. Most of those countries were under US or Soviet domination and many desperately needed reconstruction aid. So we pretty much knew how the votes would come out.

      It appears that when the colonial empires dissolved, whitey suddenly found himself outvoted, and the terms of UN power instantly looked very different. No more talk about world government.

  9. I, very hesitantly, disagree with Prof. Cole about the United States not being a world power in the later 19th century. Yes, we had only the one formal colony, but on the other hand, our role as the undisputed hegemon in the Americas was already well-established. I’d argue that we were a 20th-century major power while the other major powers were still pursuing an older game.

    There was a very deliberate effort to use the passions of 9/11 to sell the American public on the need to maintain super-power status, on the grounds that al Qaeda represented an “existential threat,” which was comparable to the military challenge posed by the Soviet Union. This was, of course, horse puckey.

    • I’m not sure it was as simple as that in Latin America. I saw a chart of the trade blocs that arose when world trade collapsed during the Great Depression, and I was surprised to find that large parts of South America were shown as being part of the Sterling bloc, not the dollar bloc.

      It would appear that the British let us have our pretense of the Monroe Doctrine, while its aging corporations managed to cling to power over the Latin oligarchs until WW2 finished off British power in every way. Argentina, you know, had the 5th highest per capita income in the world in 1900, and was part of the British sphere. Britain also supplied the battleships bought by Brazil, Argentina and Chile in their pre-WW1 arms race. The US was dominant in much poorer, more atomized Central America.

  10. Medvedev does not say this directly, but it is pretty clear that, basically, he complains about being lied about the actual meaning of UNSC resolution 1973. All he wants is no-fly zones, not massive bombing and regime change in Libya.

    For this reason, he is pretty clear that he does not want any resolutions on Syria because he thinks that any text of it will be used to justify bombing of Syria like it is done to Libya.

    One reasonable explanation of what is going on that, in its search for multilateral solutions, Obama admin wants to provide Plausible deniability to its partners. The end goal is regime change both in Libya and Syria, but it is impossible to achieve if everything is put clearly from the very beginning. Hence escalation and caveats.
    link to

  11. Prof Cole

    Thanks for the details about Iraq’s political balance but in truth, even if Iran would move in, the US has less business attempting to stop it than Iran would have doing it.

    Since the majority of Shias who despised Saddam,even though grateful, also believe the US had no business overthrowing him, you can expect after the US further botched defending against hypothetical Iranian intrusion, the majority Shias would have the same resentful negative view.

    Bluntly, also, the Arab street and the Iranian street
    generally assume the Zionist Lobby has complete control over US Mideast policy. They see both Dems and Repubs swarm Netanyahu in preference to Obama and they hear Abbas claim that Obama himself reneged on agreeements to him in favor of Israel.

    To the Arab and Iranian street, the US government is scrambling and zig zagging policy since the onset of the Arab Spring, to do what’s best to protect Israel.

    The street always immersed in conspiracy theory exagerrates the power balance in the US political class-but only slightly.

    Thus, any Iraqi government which is viewed by its populace as manipulating to keep US troops beyond the status of forces agreement can easily be accused of being a puppet government, with considerable insurgent violence destabilzing it until US troops finally leave, if only
    because the US economy finally collapses and no dollars are left for Empire. Which Arabs and Muslims view, in effect, as
    the American-Israeli Empire.

  12. You’re probably right overall about the US as world power before 1917, but you’re wrong about the Navy. The US navy was one of the world’s strongest by 1900, was the second or third strongest by the first world war, and was equal to any by 1922 or so as the older British Dreadnoughts became obsolete and were not replaced. Since the British were even slower than the US in adopting naval airpower, it’s probably right that the US was the world’s strongest navy after the Lexington and Saratoga came out, with the proviso that the Japanese, with a much smaller fleet, were qualitatively superior in torpedo warfare, night warfare, destroyer design, and (in a brittle way) naval airpower.

    The Dutch navy may have had a fine tradition going back to Tromp and DeRuyter, but couldn’t match the battleships of TR’s great white fleet (now there’s a waste of money!), and the Dutch never built a single Dreadnought, whereas the US actually put the South Carolina and Michigan into service before the British equivalent. And in the inter-war years the Dutch built none of the treaty cruisers — heavy cruisers — well, ships with eight inch guns — that the major navies, and even Spain, built in numbers.

  13. Dr. Cole writes:

    “Even the Libya War, of the prosecution of which he has been bitingly critical, will turn out all right, [Gates] thinks, because NATO will stay in the fight and remain united. That is a multilateralist sentiment. It isn’t what we were hearing from Washington in 2003. One has a sense of an age passing, and to the extent that the age was characterized by unilateral adventurism, its demise will benefit us all.”

    If I understand this correctly, what was wrong about Iraq was the US’ “unilateral adventurism.” What’s right about Libya, of course, is that the UNSC has approved it (let’s ignore the question of whether our own government has approved it).

    Isn’t that a rather simple-minded distinction, one that entirely ignores whether sound reasons existed for the intervention? What If, for example, Saddam Hussein really had had WMD and, to boot, had been slaughtering his people by the thousands every day, but the UNSC adopted no resolution authorizing action against him? Suppose, for example, that Bush had gone into Iraq without UNSC authorization (as occurred), and US troops then discovered all of this horrible Saddam behavior that other UNSC member countries had refused to believe. Suppose the US had promptly put an end to all of that bad behavior by Saddam. Would the US have been justified in intervening in Iraq even though the UNSC had declined to approve it?

    Conversely, in Libya, if the UNSC were to have authorized attacks on Libya, as have occurred, but no evidence actually turned that Gaddafi had massacred civilians, even in recaptured cities where he’d indisputably had both the opportunity and motive, might one fairly argue that US participation in the NATO bombing was improper even though the UNSC had adopted a resolution that (at least arguably) authorized that bombing? Or would the US be honor-bound to reconsider whether the bases for that UNSC resolution had been shakier than they may have appeared at the time, and so the US should stop participating in the NATO bombing?

    • Look, I didn’t make international law. The UN members did. But it is the law. The US can’t just invade other countries at the drop of a hat without violating its international treaty obligations and opening its leaders to prosecution for war crimes. All aggressive war not authorized by the UNSC is *illegal* and can result in judicial sanctions of various sorts. It doesn’t matter how bad the other guy is.

      That a war is legal, as you say, is no guarantee that prosecuting it is wise or that it will be wisely prosecuted. But prosecuting it is not a crime in international law.

  14. It is so disappointing that the American public is being given no idea of the costs of these wars and how ending them would factor in to the current hysteria over lowering the deficit.

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