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!

FOREIGN POLICY: Who’s in charge?

CIP colleague Melvin Goodman has served us all well with his sharp criticism of the duplicitous record of outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose exit tour has only exposed him as the fakir he is and has been for over three decades (www.truthout.org, June 23). Two overriding issues, both mentioned but neither the focus of Goodman’s examination of the problems awaiting incoming Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, invite separate comment.

Many of us have grown old grateful for President Harry Truman’s firm and swift dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur after the latter had presumed to challenge the political decision-making prerogatives of the White House, i.e., the elected civilian leadership of the United States. But, we’ve been inattentive.

As Goodman notes, “Panetta, having been undercut by Gates, will have to deal with continuing tension between the White House and the uniformed military [emphasis added] on troop withdrawals.” Why should there be tension once military leaders have been asked for, and then furnished, their advice? Why did President Obama not sack General Stanley McChrystal when the latter publicly promoted his own views on strategy in Afghanistan? And why, for that matter, has Obama proposed General David Petraeus to lead the CIA, and why has he named retired senior military officers to head American Embassies? Would it be cruel or thoughtless or naive to suggest that he is “under the gun”?

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Gates’ Farewell to NATO and Europe: Europe’s Opportunity? (The Long View Versus the Short View)

There is nothing surprising about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ blast at the European members of NATO over their lack of support for the “common defense” embodied in the NATO alliance. This problem has been building for decades, as long ago as when I served at the US Mission to NATO in the late 70s and early 80s when the Cold War was still the “Cold War.” But it is getting worse given the earlier 50- 50% split on cost sharing which is now 75-25%.

The European reaction however is what really matters now. In some ways, this is both the worst of times and the best of times for this issue to once again come to a head. It is the worst of times because of the global financial crisis and the disturbing intra-European conflicts regarding the specific problems of the most economically troubled nations, such as Greece, Portugal, and Ireland and likely some others, the high unemployment levels in almost all nations, and the cost of saving the euro zone and maintaining economic unity.

Further, many states in Europe are blindly following a policy of depression/retrenchment, which is likely to worsen their economies and decrease income for government programs. Any careful look at Europe and its policies can only make a grown man cry.  They are not only eating their children, prolonging high unemployment, cutting education and vital R&D expenditures, but also possibly moving towards dismantling the only firm military alliance that has American power committed to their defense in a world that still looks dangerous and unpredictable.

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The Cuts the Pentagon Missed: NYTimes Editorial 02/19/11

The Cuts the Pentagon Missed: 02/19/11

Defense Secretary Robert Gates understands that the country cannot keep issuing blank checks to the Pentagon and that the Pentagon needs to spend more rationally and efficiently. He is committed to equipping American forces for the wars they are actually fighting. He has terminated some costly and unneeded weapons programs, held errant contractors accountable, and pressed the services to find savings to help pay for new spending. Mr. Gates is right that there is no way to restrain Pentagon spending without addressing health care costs, which now account for almost 10 percent of the budget. He has proposed that working-age military retirees pay higher health insurance premiums — $520 a year, up from $460 now — the first increase in 16 years. Continue reading