Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Bob Gates: SecDef, Whether You Like It or Not

Whether you like it or not, Robert Gates will be our next Secretary of Defense. If you're not crazy about Gates, consider the immediate option: more Donald Rumsfeld.

If you are crazy about Gates, you might want to curb your enthusiasm. Superman, Batman and rest of the Justice League couldn't come up with a quick and easy solution to the catastrophe Gates is about to inherit.

If you're lukewarm about Gates, as I am, you might be a little concerned that he won't be much more than a placeholder, one that has little choice but to go along with whatever the political wind shifts dictate.

Keep in mind that as Secretary of Defense, Gates is officially still only the number two man in the military chain of command. The official Commander-in-Chief is still George W. Bush, and there's no reason to suspect that after six years of abject sub-mediocrity in that role he'll improve all of a sudden. As to who really calls the shots on Iraq--and the rest of U.S. foreign policy--well, Dick Cheney's still in place, and though he has no official standing in the chain of command whatsoever, and there's little question as to who has been the most influential public official on the Bush administration's military and diplomatic foreign policy. Maybe that's changing. Maybe it isn't.

From what we've heard of the Pentagon, White House and Baker Commission reports on a "new course" in Iraq, there doesn't seem to be very much new in them. Move some troops here, move some troops there, make up some new talking points and catch phrases, and you'll have what by any other name amounts to Son of Stay the Course.

Other Factors

Gates's confirmation hearing on Tuesday was reasonably benign.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) gave Gates his most severe cheese grating, thumping him like a pumpkin to admit that we are not winning in Iraq, that we went in with too few troops, that we need more troops now (McCain's favorite mantra these days), and so on. McCain's performance was a 2008 campaign stunt, of course, but to what extent will he be able to influence Gates--and the overall Iraq strategy--by pulling political strings within the GOP caucus?

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) grilled Gates about Iran, making him admit that yes, he thought Iran probably wanted to develop nuclear weapons. When Gates said it was possible they might only want the bomb for deterrent purposes, seeing as how they're surrounded by other nuclear powers, Graham lit off on a tirade about what a threat a nuclear-armed Iran would be to Israel. Gates, to his credit, at least tried to push back, telling Graham that Iran's leaders know what the consequences of a nuclear attack on Israel would be. He also said that any military strike on Iran should be a measure of last resort, and that use of armed force against Syria would be counterproductive.

Gates also refused to be bullied into stating unequivocally that Iraq is the "central front" in the war on terror. (He said it is one of many fronts in the war, which is true.)

So I'm somewhat optimistic that Gates isn't going to roll over for the most hawkish voices in the Senate, and I think that's important because I don't really think the most hawkish voices in the Senate know what they're talking about when it comes to the Iraq War. Joe Lieberman is a particular case in point. He keeps calling for formulation of a bipartisan plan for Iraq, implying that by simply by virtue of being "bipartisan" the plan will work. (If it's a lousy plan, being bipartisan won't make it any less lousy).

Where will the military commanders fit into Gates's scheme? It's hard to say, but I don't expect anything brilliant to come out of our top four-stars. All I've heard from Peter Pace (chairman of the Joint Chiefs), John Abizaid (Central Command chief) and George Casey (Iraq theater of war commander) are talking points from the Karl Rove propaganda playbook. I hate to ping on these guys any further, but I strongly suspect that after six years of suffering under Donald Rumsfeld, they're no longer capable of independent, analytical thought.

And whatever independent, analytical though Gates may be capable of, he's not the Commander-in-Chief. As Gates himself said at the hearings, "There is only one president of the United States, and he will make the final decisions."

Therein Lies the Rub

Young Mister Bush has abused his position as commander-in-chief of the military by treating the Constitution like a personal hygiene product. I very much hope the new Congress will aggressively pursue measures that will put him back in his constitutional cage. But I also don't think the Constitution gives either the legislature or the judiciary overt authority to dictate how a president runs an overall war strategy or how those under him in the military chain of command conduct operations and tactics. If Bush considers all the recommendations presented to him (or pretends to) and says, "Nope, I've decided to keep doing what we've been doing, because we've been making real progress the way we've been doing it," what can Congress or anybody else really do about it?"

The Supreme Court certainly isn't going to declare the Iraq War unconstitutional, and Congress won't snap the purse shut on our troops in the field, at least not for a very, very long time.

Let's hope that Mister Bush agrees to some sort of substantial change in the Iraq strategy. But let's not hope for too much. There is no silver bullet or wooden stake that will put that monster to death in a timely manner. What's more, there's no guarantee that any new plan will work any better than the old plan. For that reason, the new plan actually has to be a series of plans: plan (a) and branches and sequels (b) through (x) that look ahead to what we can try if plan (a) doesn't work out (and in warfare, plan (a) seldom works out according to plan). And we need to have something that kind of sort of looks like a timeline, because without time limits, even rough ones, we're likely to fall back into the same trap of indefinitely staying on a wrong course.


Columnist George Will is the latest among conservative pundits to come out four-square in favor of John McCain's call to send more troops to Iraq.

While I certainly respect McCain's service and the sacrifice he made during the Vietnam conflict, his experience as a prisoner of war taught didn't teach him much about the principles of armed conflict. And what George Will knows about warfare you could fit inside a medium sized skin pore.

I have searched high and low, and maybe I missed it somewhere, but I have yet to hear anyone who advocates sending more troops to Iraq address the matter of what those troops will do once they get there.

"More troops" is not a strategy. It's not even a tactic. Additional troops may be a means to accomplish a strategy or tactic, but only if those troops are given specific assignments that support tangible and achievable objectives that contribute to the overall political war aim.

When we send troops into a war zone without giving them a clear task and purpose, we're not making progress. We're just making targets.


Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Read his commentaries at ePluribus Media and Pen and Sword.


  1. Martin K4:42 AM

    Some interesting tangents indicates that Gates might actually be the real McCoy as far as policy-change is concerned. One is the recent "summoning" of Cheney to Saudi Arabi, coming not so many days after Bush Sr. was openly challenged on the integrity of his son at a high-profile event in ...Quatar? (I forget wich Emirate it was in). The Saudis are not thrilled at the prospect of Iran controlling south Iraq. Another is the synchronicity with the Baker plan, wich Gates has helped forming. A third is the resignation of Bolton.

    All this, and more, indicates to me that there has been a quiet little palace-coup, with the neo-cons being replaced with Papa Bush`s loyal cadre of realists. Im deeply afraid, though, that neither Gates nor any other republican is justly concerned with the root of the problem, the lack of fiscal & civil operational loyalty.

    Its said that the worst thing to happen to an army in the field is betrayal from within. The civil contractors Haliburton, Blackwater etc. are de facto guilty of treason for stealing money from the war-effort. The same is Paul Bremer, for actively opposing any real reconstruction in Iraq the first year of the occupation, choosing instead to give at least 9bn dollars away without receits or budgets. I do not have high hopes that Gates will go in and dicipline your private contractors as he should.

  2. I'd like to share your neutral opinion of Gates, and give him a chance, but I'm betting on bush's track record. If he picked him, there must be something wrong.

    It's true that Congress can't cut the purse strings, but it does have one option that might change some hawk opinions. Start refilling the purse.

    Pass the cost of the war back to the fat-cats who are currently profiting off of it. They think this war is great as long as China and our grandchildren fund it, but if we go to a pay-as-you-go war, and start covering past debts, it takes all the fun out of it. Even if they push the taxes on the little guys too, they'll lose their big profits in lost Christmas sales and overall declines in the market.

    Of course, that would require a government that's interested in doing what's good for the country. We have't had one of them for a while now.

  3. William and Martin,

    We'll see what happens. As I've said before, I skeptical as to whether we'll see any actual change.


  4. Stay the Course: Mach 2!

    Superman did that fly around the earth until it rotates backwards trick, making us all go back in time. Maybe we could go all the way back to before the Iraq invasion...

    All this talk about more troops is just hot air. Where ya gonna get 'em? What do they do when they get to Iraq?

    Daily Show explained it beautifully last night: Bush equates leaving with losing, so the troops come home when we win, but the definition of winning is staying and that's called Blowing Your Enemy's Mind!

  5. Jeff,
    I, too, respect all that John McCain did on active duty. But in the last few months, beginning - for me, at least - with his trip to Lynchburg to kiss Falwell's ass last May, and now with this mindless call for more troops, his credibility's gone.
    George Will: following his prissy little piece about the Webb-Bush encounter, his cred's toast, also. Why not applaud a senator-elect who understands, as George Allen did not, that are three branches to the Federal Government.

  6. I agree with those who feel that the latest developments (Gates, Baker-Hamilton, Cheney's call to report to the woodshed - if thats what it was) give some indication that Poppy's group of realists will be trying to exert some influence on what is laughingly referred to as foreign policy under Bush 43.

    Th best to hope for from Mr Gates is that he thinks like a physician: First, do no harm.