The Gates Doctrine

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's remarks last week were in keeping with his ongoing effort to restructure the armed forces and create what he has called a “truly 21st century” military. 

“Any future defense secretary,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told an audience of West Point cadets Friday, “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.”


In what was something of a farewell speech—he is stepping down later this year—Gates was widely seen as warning against more wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq. But what Gates was actually suggesting was that we are unlikely to have to fight the kind of large-scale mechanized ground war we anticipated fighting against the Soviets, because in the future, conflicts with major military powers are likely to be fought in the air or on the sea.

In fact, as the text of his speech makes clear, Gates was arguing that it is precisely “messy fights” like those in Afghanistan and Iraq that we should prepare for, even if it’s not very likely we’ll have to “invade, pacify and administer” another large third world country again.

We can’t know with absolute certainty what the future of warfare will hold, but we do know it will be exceedingly complex, unpredictable, and—as they say in the staff colleges—“unstructured.”  Just think about the range of security challenges we face right now beyond Iraq and Afghanistan: terrorism and terrorists in search of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, North Korea, military modernization programs in Russia and China, failed and failing states, revolution in the Middle East, cyber, piracy, proliferation, natural and man-made disasters, and more.

While we'll always need heavy armor and firepower, Gates argued that given “the likelihood of counter-terrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions” the U.S. should focus on building “swift-moving expeditionary forces”—the kind of forces we would need both to fight in the next Afghanistan or Iraq and to prevent us from having to go into another Afghanistan or Iraq in the first place.

Gates’ remarks were in keeping with his ongoing effort to restructure the armed forces and create what he has called a “truly 21st century” military. While Gates is probably right to say we'll need a flexible military that can take on a wide variety of low-end missions, he fails to really address the question of whether we should have gotten occupied Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place or whether we should still be in either country. Rebecca Griffin argues that Gates needs his own head examined for “continuing deadly, costly wars in the face of mountains of evidence that the strategy has no hope of succeeding.” What to do in Afghanistan in particular is a question the Gates Doctrine really doesn’t answer—save to say that we should make sure we never need to go into a country like Afghanistan again.

Photo credit: Cherie A. Thurlby

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