It seems Defense Secretary Gates has been retiring almost as long as he served Presidents Bush and Obama. The media, ardent fans of the Secretary, have followed him on five or six victory laps in his months-long ceremonial departure. As the New York Times puts it, “…the last trip to Afghanistan, the last hearing before Congress, the last news conference, a series of last interviews with reporters” not to mention a couple of commencement speeches
Gates’ most lasting achievement may be accepting the Secretary of Defense job in the first place. He claims credit for deterring the Bush Administration from taking military action against Iran and engaging other foreign military adventures.
“The only thing I guess I would say to that is: I hope I’ve prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past four and a half years — or maybe dumb is not the right word, but things that were not actually in our interest,” Mr. Gates said.
It’s ironic that Gates came into the Bush Administration to clean up after Donald Rumsfeld and leaves as questioning and debate about the future of American power accelerates after Iraq and Afghanistan:
I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position,” he tells NEWSWEEK, seated in a windowless conference room aboard the Boeing E-4B. “It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”
“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”
Indeed, it’s time for Gates to retire, because scaling back the military, in particular, is what the times as much as the economy, demand. For over 20 years, the single ‘Superpower’ model has been an illusion. The more the US exercises power unilaterally in any sphere – military, climate, human rights – the more the world pushes back. After WW2, the US and USSR became two co-dependent superpowers that manipulated war, politics and the subtleties of diplomacy to their own advantage in a race for domination. One without the other, standing alone, can’t depend on Cold War myth or a hyped fear of terror to rally allies.
It’s been left to Gates to call a spade a spade in a disheveled and contrary world. He recognized the dangerously adventurous policies of the Bush Administration and canceled the F-22 program as symbol of Pentagon waste. More cuts have been forced on the Pentagon in direct response to the bleeding budget deficit, itself accumulated in large part by the ‘wars of choice’ Gates candidly warned future administrations to avoid.
Cold Warriors like Gates have a knee-jerk reaction against terms like ‘isolationist’ for good reason. Standing on the sidelines in WW2, or not rebuilding Europe afterwards would have been morally and economically disastrous for the US.
But to many of the Vietnam generation and beyond, pulling back from world crises would benefit the US. ‘Engagement’ has too often meant American intervention into conflicts within other nations through the ‘soft’ approach of aid or the aggression of war, coup d’etats and assassination. More recently, the ‘war on terror’ has been used to legitimize similar efforts.
The US will never abandon all its international commitments or even all its off-shore operating bases. But it can’t police the world. Power has shifted. What business does the US have in selling advanced weapons systems to Taiwan? If Taiwan decided to use them against the People’s Republic of China, we won’t risk war with China on behalf of a small, island nation that China claims in the first place. NATO, born of the Cold War as a US-European military alliance that could face off with the USSR and Warsaw Pact, is now in the absurd position of flying air sorties to loosen Col. Quaddafi’s grip on Libya – a far cry from its original mandate. The War in Afghanistan is the only case in NATO’s history where the alliance was called upon to fight in defense of one of its members. NATO, a bloated relic of the past, is a huge waste of time, money and leadership that should have been dismantled two decades ago.
The US currently maintains 865 military bases outside the US, Iraq and Afghanistan at a cost of $102 billion a year - more if the latter are included. Is this the global infrastructure we need sixty years after WW2? Shouldn’t other countries and regions be more responsible for their own protection and security? During the Cold War, the US rebuffed Europe whenever European leaders moved to strengthen their independent defense capability. Fear of European independence is absurd today.
Too many assumptions about US security not challenged in decades still direct the deployment of US troops and material around the world. Even without the economic meltdown of 2008-9, China and India were growing in relation to the U.S. The ‘decline of America’ has become a political catch phrase. Some use it to strike fear in our minds and build anti-foreign sentiment. Others give it an anti-capitalist slant.
In reality, we are experiencing a relative decline in American economic and political power as other countries develop their own economies and assume greater roles in world politics. China may be the world’s second largest economy but its per capita economic output in 2010 is the same as America’s was in 1878, that’s 132 years ago.
Right now, the staggering US economy is pressuring cut-backs in America’s far-flung global infrastructure. It’s a time to recalibrate and adjust, not panic.