As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prepares to depart the government, his public pronouncements on national security seem increasingly philosophical. However, even the random musings of a U.S. defense secretary have practical implications for overseas friends and enemies, so he might want to consider being a bit more circumspect in what he says about future conflicts in Asia. In a recent speech to the United States Military Academy at West Point, Gates approvingly cited General Douglas MacArthur to the effect that any future defense secretary who advises the president to send a big American land force into Asia or the Middle East should “have his head examined.”
Everybody understands the burden that Secretary Gates has borne in overseeing military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. But is this really the message that a senior U.S. policymaker should be sending to Beijing or Pyongyang or Teheran? Each one of those capitals harbors elements intent on interfering in the affairs of neighbors, and the biggest reason they haven’t is the deterrence provided by U.S. military forces in their respective regions. So signaling that America is unlikely to send large numbers of troops to defend South Korea or Taiwan or Saudi Arabia is dangerous.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a similar mis-step in January of 1950, delivering a speech about U.S. policy in Asia that some interpreted as placing Korea outside the U.S. defensive perimeter. Six months later, North Korea invaded the South, and U.S. forces were nearly driven off the peninsula. U.S. Army brigades still defend South Korea across a bleak, heavily mined “demilitarized” zone that separates the two countries — a direct inheritance of the war that followed Acheson’s unfortunate remarks. So what message are our soldiers on the DMZ in Korea, or in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, supposed to be getting when the Pentagon’s top leader says, in effect, “wow — that was a big mistake!”
And what message are China’s increasingly confident military leaders getting that might be germane to their own designs on Taiwan? Gates has been told repeatedly by his intelligence analysts that Beijing’s leaders believe America is in terminal decline, and Washington lacks the resolve to block China’s rise to regional supremacy. The decision to stage a very public test flight of China’s new J-20 fighter while Gates was visiting in January says a lot about how the Peoples Liberation Army is thinking these days. So it can’t help the cause of deterrence to see Secretary Gates publicly agonizing over what must seem to China’s dictators like very modest U.S. casualties in Afghanistan. Nor can it help to hear that he thinks no sane person will be sending U.S. soldiers to defend Asian friends in a jam.
Edward Gibbon got it right when he said that what kept the Roman world at peace was the fact that the empire was always preparing for war. If our defense secretary makes it sound like America is preparing for peace, that’s a pretty strong indication that some enemy will decide now is the time to make war. And since Asia is the place where we have the most security challenges to worry about, maybe Gates should spend more time talking about how we’re going to kick the butt of any regional aggressor there who makes trouble, instead of sounding like a war-weary leader.
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