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April 26, 2011 8:24 pm
The revolution in Syria is well under way. The revolution in Libya struggles on. The Middle East is alight, yet most of America’s military commitment, and the political attention associated with it, remains in Afghanistan. Every day that the US worries about events such as the escape of hundreds of painstakingly detained insurgents from an Afghan jail is a day in which America loses the power of initiative elsewhere.
Two months ago Robert Gates, defence secretary, gave a speech about the future of the US army at West Point, saying that “any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it”. Mr Gates, a principal architect of the present commitment in Afghanistan, has since complained through his spokesman that this line was “hijacked” by critics. Gen MacArthur, also a principal advocate of a large-scale war in Asia, may not have uttered the words, but it is worth reflecting on what both these men were saying about the troubles of American grand strategy.
Mr Gates’ remarks came just as the new flare-up in Libya began and as pressure to develop military plans for a possible confrontation with Iran continues. It was a prepared remark, uttered with deliberation, by an experienced statesman. He had inherited an Afghan and Iraqi war. He helped to escalate the Iraq war in order to get to the place where he could pull out of it by the end of this year. He also helped to escalate the Afghan war, if with a longer-term vision that is harder to discern. Surely, whatever his prognosis, he regards the Afghan fight as a frustrating experience. Listening to his West Point address, I hear exasperation in his voice and the implied words: “Enough already.”
The quote Mr Gates used was borrowed from the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr, describing how Gen MacArthur in 1961 advised President John F. Kennedy to avoid intervention in Laos. For reasons so strange to us now that it needs a historian to explain them, many serious men then thought this little landlocked nation was a pivot of world security. Gen MacArthur was a fervent anti-communist, so his argument made a strong impression on Kennedy. In today’s terms, Gen MacArthur was making an argument about America’s strategic initiative.
Strategic initiative is a vital but neglected concept in foreign policy. It is about who sets the agenda and who reacts. It is about who plays offence politically and who plays defence. The side with the strategic initiative is the side that chooses the time, place and manner of a clash. Gen MacArthur was urging Kennedy not to get bogged down in a war in a time, place and manner chosen by China or the Soviet Union.
When he took his job in 2006 Mr Gates inherited a world in which the US had lost a great deal of strategic initiative. Its military capability, and the time and attention of its leaders were tied down, “fixed” in military parlance, in draining, inconclusive conflicts. At the highest level the task for American national defence remains to recover this initiative, by recovering the capacity to manoeuvre. The apt word President Barack Obama has used, which he also means in the sense of American domestic concerns, is “rebalance.”
Libya may be the irritable object of some experts who are fatigued with or even disgusted by American overcommitment. It is not, however, the impediment to recovering this initiative. With Libya, a little patience and perspective would help. There is no persuasive evidence that Muammer Gaddafi enjoys any broad base of public support. The revolution is broad and spontaneous. It is also, of course, unready, untrained and fractious. But Colonel Gaddafi has a particular, venomous history with the US and several European and Arab countries. They thus have an interest in the outcome and are acting accordingly.
But Col Gaddafi’s military forces are not formidable and his economy is based on the Libyan National Oil Company, an entity already under international sanctions. Tens of billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets are ready to be released to an alternative government. It is possible that the revolutionaries and their foreign supporters will mismanage their efforts so disastrously that Col Gaddafi will eventually triumph, but the level of collective incompetence would need to be the stuff of legend. No “big American land army” should be desired or needed at any point.
Taking stock of the so-called “three wars” in which America is now embroiled, Libya is not even at the level of effort expended in the less important Kosovo conflict of 1999. Another – Iraq – is on an apparently inexorable path to being wound up this year. The main impediment to US strategic initiative is therefore Afghanistan. That conflict is the real subtext for Mr Gates’ now-famous remark, and the proper context for recalling Gen MacArthur’s warning to another president, 50 years ago.
The writer is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. From 2005 to 2007 he was the counsellor of the US Department of State
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