Saturday, February 26, 2011

Team Players

Would that we had more leaders who were willing to resign or get fired. People who’d speak truthfully and with common sense, even if it damaged their careers. In short, leaders with conscience and genuine conviction. In 1915 Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned when he saw that Woodrow Wilson was steering us into the First World War. Such an act at that level of government today is unthinkable. I mean, honestly, can you envision somebody like Joseph Biden or Hillary Clinton resigning over a matter of principle? The whole idea is not only laughable but weirdly anachronistic, like wearing powdered wigs and dueling. People just don’t do that anymore.

I’m not talking about obscure functionaries, low level diplomats, or any of the honest yeoman who went into government service thinking it was a noble calling and belatedly discovered that it isn’t. I know some of them can and do quit their posts for moral reasons. I mean high profile figures, secretaries of state, defense, vice presidents, the types who show up on Meet The Press and whose actions could, as they say in the mainstream media, “resonate” with the American people.

But it just doesn’t seem to happen. The upper ranks of US officialdom are dominated by blinkered careerists who speak in cliches and instinctively go with the flow for the sake of their own advancement. They adopt the institutional group think of whatever organ they serve and never question its biases or limitations, even when, as in the case of the US foreign policy, such group think is almost always spectacularly, mindbogglingly wrong. Collapse of the Soviet Union? We didn’t see it coming. 9/11? We didn’t see it coming. We’re not going to get bogged down in Afghanistan, we’re gonna rock their world. Insurgency in Iraq? No way, they’re going to welcome us as liberators. It’s going to be like D-Day all over again! Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Well, again, we didn’t see it coming.

I’ve always thought that Robert Gates typifies this mentality. Here’s a man who’s spent his entire life worming through the innards of establishment institutions, the Eagle Scouts, the Young Republicans, the Air Force, CIA (which he even headed), the National Security Council, and, of course, the Defense Department. It’s as if he was born to spend his old age on a golf course with George H. W. Bush and James Baker. It’s true that he doesn’t inspire the same antipathy one feels for his immediate predecessor, but that’s because he doesn’t inspire anything at all. He’s just a dull, colorless company man who obediently follows orders and never rocks the boat. That’s how he got where he is.

So imagine my surprise when I read this:

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates bluntly told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday that it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of government in that fashion again were slim.

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Mr. Gates told an assembly of Army cadets here.

This seemed like a pretty striking thing for the secretary of defense to say. Not only does he appear to be criticizing current military policies, but he’s taking a kick at Rumsfeld as well. Maybe Good Soldier Gates, former Eagle Scout, harbors a few original opinions after all.

If you go to the full text of the speech you’ll see another interesting quote:

And I must tell you, when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more – we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

We have never once gotten it right! Finally, I thought, a government official is spilling the beans when it can actually make a difference, rather than waiting for the dust to settle and then offering the “right” opinion in his memoirs. At this point, you’re rooting for him to take the next logical step and repudiate the interventionist policies that produced so much failure in the first place.

But, as you might imagine, he doesn’t. It turns out he has no problem with multiple interventions abroad, we just need to learn how to do them more successfully. His answer? Abandon full-scale invasions and go back to using “unconventional capabilities.” You know, like the ones we used in Vietnam with such great success.

From the look of things, the Army will not repeat the mistakes of the past, where irregular warfare was shunted to the side after Vietnam. The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low. But in what General Casey has called “an era of persistent conflict,” those unconventional capabilities will still be needed at various levels and in various locations. Most critically to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly – and controversial – large-scale American military intervention.

Alas, Gates is merely his master’s voice. A team player. He simply offers a few tactical changes to the doctrine of preemptive war so that our rotting imperial project can keep lurching along. Don’t use tanks anymore. Use psy-ops and guerrillas instead. No doubt his audience of West Point cadets took it all to heart.

Libya here we come!

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