Amid the Cheers, Gates Puts U.S. on Risky Path

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is very much the man of the moment. Hearts are aflutter in the Washington Establishment. Katie Couric's teenage-crush interview on last Sunday's "60 Minutes" may have been the most egregious example, but it has become conventional wisdom that Gates is both a visionary and decisive leader, a Churchillian figure bent on "changing the culture" at the Pentagon.

There is no question that Gates bestrides American military affairs, but the wisdom of his recent decisions deserves greater scrutiny and less celebration. The dismissal of Gen. David McKiernan as the senior commander in Afghanistan raises as many questions as it answers. Even more profoundly, Gates' decisions about defense budgets, programs and long-term plans put the U.S. military on a risky path.

Gates' move to replace McKiernan as Afghanistan commander with Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal received almost universal acclaim. McChrystal is a respected figure, both for his intellect and his vigor in tracking down and killing Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq. He has won the blessing of Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command and architect of the surge in Iraq. McChrystal will signal a new urgency in the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. Gates has been frustrated by the slow pace of campaigning there and the unwillingness of European allies--remember that the International Security and Assistance Force is a NATO command--to increase their commitment. "I've been disappointed with NATO's response to this ever since I got the job [as defense secretary]," he told Couric.

There is a fine line between having a sense of urgency and doing something before you're ready.

Gates may not bellow the way his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld did, but the message is much the same: "Old Europe" doesn't bring much to the table in the "Long War." And the sacking of McKiernan was done in a Rumsfeldian, unilateralist way. Even our closest allies had little warning and no input into the decision. Gates has also made it clear that he favors a "light footprint" approach to Afghanistan and a rapid "transition" to an expanded Afghan National Army. He told Couric that the handover could happen within two years. Again, this sounds like Rummy and former CENTCOM chief Gen. John Abizaid talking about their Iraq strategy circa 2005. There is a fine line between having a sense of urgency and doing something before you're ready.

Couric profiled Gates as the "Secretary of War." But by keeping Gates on, President Obama has given him the traditional portfolio of a secretary of defense, in charge of shaping the U.S. military as an institution. And in this role, too, Gates has received adulatory press coverage for giving proponents of counterinsurgency and irregular warfare "a seat at the table" in budgeting and programming matters. The smart set sees this as an act of wisdom and courage, with Gates heroically fighting head-in-the-sand generals, a greedy defense industry and a parochial Congress.

In an era marked by persistent irregular warfare, this might seem like a no-brainer. No one can say exactly when the United States might find itself forced to intervene in the greater Middle East, or whether the situation would be a replay of Iraq or Afghanistan, but it's almost a certainty that there will be more of these kinds of conflicts. And who can argue with the need, as Gates puts it, to "win the wars we're in."

But there are other considerations, too. We're not in a war with China and don't wish to be, but there has been an active arms race in East Asia for a decade or more; the People's Liberation Army is a direct and increasingly dangerous threat to U.S. forces and allies in the region. Russia's invasion of Georgia raises new questions about the peace of Europe. The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a global phenomenon; the balance of terror is increasingly multipolar and less stable. Our military must be able to credibly deter or respond to many kinds of conflicts in all these theaters.

But by his very virtues, Gates has become the dazzling front man for the Obama administration's priorities--to end wars rather than win them, to cut defense programs while expanding domestic entitlements. The long-term effect can only be a decline in America's ability to preserve the peace. That would be an unfortunate echo of the "Good for Gates!" cheer now heard so loudly inside the Beltway.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.

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