Before and after President Obama decided to be "very unambiguous" about why Muammar Qaddafi should step down, a lot of people were reading way too much into his defense secretary's comments above, made at West Point as part of a legacy tour that just happened to fall in the middle of a civil war. Was this some pre-emptive kind of door-slamming on the prospect of U.S. military intervention in Libya and whatever follow-on "Facebook revolutions" are to come? Not really. As MacArthur himself — a serious headcase if there ever was one — discovered with Truman, only the commander-in-chief makes those calls. The rest of us are just advisers, onlookers, and ne'er-do-wells.
And don't read too much into Hillary Clinton's own Libya whopper on Tuesday — "this doesn't come from some Western power or some Gulf country saying this is what you should do, this is how you should live" — because there's a lot more going on here than no-fly zones. As the world awaits our next move in the Middle East's power struggle, an intense battle is unfolding within the national-security establishment back home: The "future of the force," as insiders here in Washington and around the Pentagon like to call it, hangs in the balance. And Robert Gates, having already advertised that the United States of America had reached its limits and now poised for his final power play, knows how to counter better than anyone in the president's ear.
Can we interpret the Gates comments — made on his way out the door and protecting his tenuous small-war legacy every step of the way — as a repudiation of Bush and Cheney's long-war logic? Again, not really. (And please take note that almost all of the proposals out there for "surgical" this-and-that in Libya comes closer to Rumsfeld's vilified light-and-fast mentality than anything approaching a mass land force occupation.)
Does the Defense Department suddenly want to walk away from this "era of persistent conflict," as Gates likes to call it? No. (He's fully supports Obama's our-badassess-versus-their-badasses approach to counter-terrorism, swapping out Bush's bring-'em-on bravado for remorseless killing drones).
Is the U.S. military, as Gates said in the West Point speech, an "institution transformed by war" to the point of tamping down any possible major land war in Asia? Only insofar as we're keeping counterinsurgency alive and the troops safe. (Remember the last time we ditched that plan?)
But in staring down the Obama administration's wave of withdrawal from the world — the "post-American world" vibe that has we'll-be-number-one-again pundits like Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria headed straight for Qadaffi's bookshelf — Bob Gates swims against it. While managing two wars, he got fed up with trading future combat casualties in imaginary wars with China against today's very real ones, so you'll have to excuse him for sounding such somber notes. And God bless him for that, because it took a while to get here.
Read the entire post at Esquire's The Politics Blog.