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.
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.