Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The End of the Affair

Infatuation with Republican Secretary Ends

I should have known it wasn't for real. I'm no James Carville and DOD Secretary Robert Gates is no Mary Matalin. The large passion I felt for Gates when he announced a plan for extensive cuts in previously untouchable weapons programs was real. No Republican with Gates' stature has set himself against the culture of biggering the military budget since Dwight Eisenhower's critique of the military-industrial system. But I should have recognized that what I felt was not love, but the gratitude of a thirsty man staggering up to an affordable bar in an out-of-the-way mirage.

This return to reality is caused, irony of ironies, by the fact that Gates has just recently fired the only general who ever stoked a similar passion in me. General David McKiernan endeared himself to me when reports circulated about a paper he wrote intended to guide US military operations in Afghanistan.

"One tactical approach stands out [in the memo]," wrote Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus, who highlighted an important quote from McKiernan's paper: "Do not clear an area unless GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] are able to hold it."

McKiernan made a special effort to clarify the point that military operations in Afghanistan must be guided by the understanding that actions that do not contribute to security, stability and hope in the Afghani countryside will undermine US goals. There may be other recent examples of such prudent thinking by commanders leading US military interventions, but I'm not aware of them.

Like my "cut military spending" mantra, I also favor "US out of everywhere" as a general approach to military policy. Nothing McKiernan wrote changed my mind on that point. But it was refreshing to think that somewhere in the world there was a commander of US military forces who could not be satirized for an "I love the smell of napalm in the morning (Apocalypse, Now)" mindset.

Now, McKiernan's gone. Fired by Gates, who replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a soldier with a special forces and a secret ops background. Call me a quitter, but I'm ready to bail out now.

Of course, the US has not, in my adult lifetime, fought a war I didn't oppose. Further, it seems increasingly likely that it is no longer possible to fight a war in which one side wins. Obviously, there are always losers in war, but what are the realistic outcomes that would define what it means to win a war?

At this point, I am so over Bob Gates. And I am audacious enough to hope that the Pentagon will one day soon be run by people who don't believe that winning a war is a reasonable goal.

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