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

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less
Sponsored

Why Henry David Thoreau was drawn to yoga

The famed author headed to the pond thanks to Indian philosophy.

Image: Public Domain / Shutterstock / Big Think
Personal Growth
  • The famed author was heavily influenced by Indian literature, informing his decision to self-exile on Walden Pond.
  • He was introduced to these texts by his good friend's father, William Emerson.
  • Yoga philosophy was in America a century before any physical practices were introduced.
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less
Photo: Shutterstock / Big Think
Personal Growth
    • A recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 80 percent of Americans don't exercise enough.
    • Small breaks from work add up, causing experts to recommend short doses of movement rather than waiting to do longer workouts.
    • Rethinking what exercise is can help you frame how you move throughout your day.
    Keep reading Show less