The Latest Farewell to Fighting Wars in Asia

February 28th, 2011

By Jan Barry

“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 [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”

There’s a quote for the history books, broadcast last week at the US Military Academy at West Point by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring this year. It was as blunt a reassessment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as MacArthur’s scathing warning to steer clear of fighting in Vietnam in the wake of the war in Korea that ended his four-star military career.

As the Christian Science Monitor’s Brad Knickerbocker reported, “Gates’s message was clear: The US military services, as well as the elected and appointed civilians who send them to war, need better ways of foreseeing and preparing for national security threats.” Future responses need to avoid the costly deployments of armies to wage protracted battles in far-flung corners of the world, the Pentagon chief added.

“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,” Gates told the West Point cadets. “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.”

Expanding limited military missions, Gates emphasized, into nearly decade-long wars turned out to be the bloody mire that MacArthur warned against. “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low,” Gates said. To avert such a repeat scenario, the US government must do a better job that focuses on ways to “prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly—and controversial—large-scale American military intervention.”

Gates’ speech prompted Huffington Post blogger William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, to expand upon the implications of his scalding farewell address at West Point. “I’d like to propose a coda to the ‘Gates Doctrine’: Any current defense secretary who advises the president to prolong the current wars in Asia and the Middle East should have his head examined,” Astore wrote. “The future is now, Mr. Secretary. It’s time to end our costly and futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s time to support our troops by bringing them home. And for our next and future nation-building target, let’s take a look around us. There’s plenty of work to be done right here in the good ol’ USA.”

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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One Response to “The Latest Farewell to Fighting Wars in Asia”

  1. Tom Carter |

    I hadn’t heard about Gates’ remarks until now. I agree with him completely.

    I’m not anti-war, as a general proposition, because that’s a denial of reality. When necessary and in the national interest, military force has to be used. But not like we’ve done it lately. We may be finally getting ourselves out of Iraq, but the Afghanistan quagmire seems unending.

    I have no problem with the fact that we took down Saddam Hussein’s regime. That was a good thing to do. But then we should have pulled the military out and let the Iraqis sort themselves out, with as much U.S. non-military assistance as they might have wanted. Same with Afghanistan — throw the Taliban out, then get the military out. Nation-building is not what the military is intended for. It might be functional to leave some military trainers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to work in concert with other development efforts, but that should be all.

    Some will say, perhaps correctly, that we can’t do that — take down a government, then just walk away. Fine. Then leave the government in place. Attack elements in the country that threaten U.S. interests to the extent necessary to neutralize them, then leave them alone as long as there’s no threat to the U.S. from within that country. That will work, and it doesn’t require “boots on the ground” in any great numbers or for an extended period of time.

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