Looking Back and Debates on Strategy and Learning from Mistakes


Harry C. Blaney III

Welcome to 2014! 2013 All Over Again?

We have been seeing early this year a spat of pundits and others looking at the passing of 2013 and making their criticisms of the good and especially the bad. In this connection, we are also now hearing more about the new book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates with commentators highlighting his criticism of president Barack Obama and also the Congress and, perhaps in my own perspective, himself. Yet as the year started and the Congress has come back from what was its most disastrous year of obstruction and dysfunction in ages, we seem again to be seeing more of the corrosive politics, backbiting, and myopic stupidities resuming.

First, what did we learn from the reports and summary of the Gates book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War?” Perhaps that Obama may have make a mistake in keeping Gates or that Gates indeed should have resigned if his vision of American strategic interests were not the same as his elected “Commander-in-Chief.” Yet, is that the true reason, as we will see below, he was not in his own words a war hawk?

We are learning Gates desired more independence and may have been more inclined to stay the course than Obama who was looking to not only get out of the quagmire that was Iraq, but also to find a way to withdraw responsibly from the Afghanistan horrors with some limited gains, rather than continually escalating a war that seemed to have no end with a corrupt regime put in place by his Republican predecessor. Gates seemed to criticize Obama for not “liking” Karzai – for me a virtue and wisdom of Obama and a defect of Gates. And as for Gates thinking Obama not believing in “his own war plan,” we needed a healthy skepticism as the “plan” was as much a Pentagon construct with White House added limits, verses during the period of Rumsfeld/ Bush/Cheney/Gates and the consequent blind obsession with making needless or badly managed war.

As for Obama saying to his key DOD leaders to leave the “messaging” and speaking to the media to him and the White House, Gates, it is reported, thought this was “disrespectful” to General David Petraeus who was responsible for many of the unauthorized and “undisciplined” leaks that came out of the Pentagon. Keep in mind that Obama later named Petraeus as the head of the C.I.A. another appointment that turned sour when Petraeus left in disgrace. In short, Obama comes out from this book looking cautious and leading rather than following those who wanted a continued more militant path. While Gates may seem just a disgruntled Secretary who just could not resign from his high profile job given to him by the president and did not light fighting battles with his colleagues.  What is new in Washington? The president must feel the same way.

For me, one of the startling Gates views was his belief that the White House and national security staff level of involvement was “unprecedented.” That is an odd statement, since as both a former White House staffer and State Department policy planning advisor to several secretaries in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, and under Henry Kissinger and Cy Vance, I can attest that policy dominance from the White House was far greater and more normal than it is today. Just to add, for the record, Gates praised Obama for his decision to get Osama bin Laden…a distinctly Presidential level decision.

Gates, to his credit, in the book writes critically of those that would use war as the first option and against “ideologues” on all sides that too often call for the use of U.S. Military force. He notes there are limits to “what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do.” The oddity is that is likely just what Obama recognizes. Learning by mistakes is a key element in better decisions.

In this perspective, one “mistake” by the “war-war” types is on the horizon with a push to add Iranian sanctions by the Congress as we are in hard negotiating with Iran over its nuclear weapons program – talk about trying to interject partisan politics into foreign affairs to destroy a President’s search for a diplomatic option with Congressional types trying to move us towards a disastrous war.

The question, which we will address in later posts, is then what can we do with others to deal with the true global challenges, upheavals, poverty, climate change, and other disasters if military options are poor tools?

We welcome you comments!


  1. Harry C. Blaney III January 15, 2014 / 11:00 AM

    I agree largely with both Chuck and Robert, we often are seeing the world too much through “military eyes” as Chuck put it. I have tried to address this a bit in my last post.

    And I agree that Gates did often see things via the military perspective. But I have to give him credit…which is often not cited in the reviews of this book…..that in the end he provided in the book a statement of caution on the use of the military and the cost of doing so. In some ways his views are contradictory. And as to his comments about Obama, they are self-serving and perhaps crassly opportunist since they have given a much higher profile to his book than if he had not taken on his president who first asked him to continue to serve and he accepted knowing Obama’s positions, and to whom he owed a great measure of respect. Otherwise why did he take on the job, not resign early if he disagreed, and not least acknowledged more fully Obama’s wisdom in getting us out of wars that otherwise may have had no end or good conclusion in any case. And, as I have noted, I have seen a number of administrations, almost all, in which the president as CinC exercised his constitutional right in direct intervention and guidance. Gates’s knew this, and was in the same Nixon White House as I was, and he saw it happen up-close and participated in such efforts.

    I, with respect, still have to disagree with Chuck on the usefuness today of international agreements and treaties to solve the pressing and urgent issues of our world. They are better tools than war and they advance goals that all mankind share.

  2. Robert Lamoree January 10, 2014 / 10:09 AM

    It has been my thought that Gates did a commendable job as Defense Sec’y . . . a monumental improvement after his predecessor. Should things have been left unsaid? Maybe. Maybe not. Historians like to know everything about people and events. But, considering the timing of his book, it does not help a beleaguered president.
    To those who question whether Obama is on a viable and correct foreign policy course, I commend getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, forgoing military action in Libya and Syria, and attempting to reach accord with Iran. Considering what prior administration policies have accomplished, how is that not good policy.
    Perception, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

  3. chuck woolery January 8, 2014 / 10:30 PM


    Thank you for your insights regarding the General’s new book which appears to look at a very complicated world mainly through military eyes. Eyes that still seem to see our war machine as a useful tool. Your final question “what can we do with others to deal with the true global challenges, upheavals, poverty, climate change, and other disasters if military options are poor tools?” is worth a serious discussion. As problems, crisis and body counts mount, urgency appears to be the greatest casualty in the on going domestic political conflicts. But diplomacy and unenforceable treaties seems to be even more anemic at resolving anything. We hang onto this failing paradigm that independent national governments can solve irreversibly interdependent problems. That definition of insanity keeps ringing in my ears….Doing the same thing, over and over…expecting a different result. When will it be acceptable to consider a sane alternative paradigm…even if it is completely politically unacceptable at this time? Do we really have to wait until it gets exponentially worse?

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