Jacob Heilbrunn

The Neocon Hazing of Robert Gates

 Robert Gates' recent remarks about Libya and foreign intervention have triggered no small amount of grousing on the part of some neoconservatives. Writing in the Weekly Standard, William Kristol acknowledged that while Gates was something of an improvement over his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld--how hard could that have been, anyway?--his resignation will prove no big deal. Good riddance was his message.

As Kristol put it:

let someone take over as secretary of defense who believes in the missions in which American forces are now engaged, and who does not shy away from the understanding that American power is a crucial force for good in the world.

As always with the neocons, it's best to be on guard when hackneyed phrases such as "a crucial force for good" are bandied about. They serve as a substitute for hard thought, offering moral uplift in place of critical scrutiny. The notion that Gates does not believe in the missions that America is engaged in is, in fact, rather bizarre. Wasn't it Gates who recently denounced America's NATO allies for seeking to sidle out of Afghanistan? Gates announced, "there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right." This hardly sounds like a closet pacifist is running the Pentagon.

The second part of Kristol's critique doesn't stand up either. The corollary of Kristol's remark is that Gates isn't simply someone who doesn't think American power is a "force for good," but that he might even think it's self-destructive. There have been times when that's been true as in Vietnam. But once again, it's hard to see that Gates has shown any specially avidity for dodging a fight. He was one of the coldest of the cold warriors--and was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev.

The gravamen of Gates' speech about intervention abroad, as I understood it, is the rather obvious point that the age of mass tank warfare has come to an end. All the services must adapt to a new era. Gates' remarks on March 4 at the United States Air Force Academy sound persuasive and cogent:

 

I’m concerned that the view still lingers in some corners that once I depart as Secretary, and once U.S. forces drawdown in Iraq and in Afghanistan in accordance with the President’s and NATO’s strategy, things can get back to what some consider to be real Air Force normal.

This must not happen. Stability and security missions, counterterrorism, train, assist and equip, persistent battlefield ISR, close air support, search and rescue, and the ever-critical transport missions are with us to stay – even without a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan.

America needs to field a more nimble and agile force. I'm no expert on the American military, but, then again, neither is Kristol. Kristol's critique is motivated more by pique over Gates' caution about a no-fly-zone than anything else.

But Gates, by and large, has got it right over the past years, serving both George W. Bush, whose last two years he helped rescue, and President Obama, with distinction. As Michael Gerson observes, Gates, in many ways, is a throwback to the era of George H.W. Bush. Gates is a realist. During his final months in office, he deserves applause, not brickbats, for his service and unvarnished advice.