Is Robert Gates an isolationist?

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
Font Size:

When libertarian-leaning Republicans suggest America should be reluctant to go to war, the eternal cry of the hawkish establishment is, “Isolationist!” John McCain says Rand Paul’s an isolationist. The Wall Street Journal says Paul and Justin Amash are both isolationists. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin thinks Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin are isolationists too.

Why? For not wanting to intervene in Libya, Syria, questioning the Iraq and Afghanistan wars or perhaps being concerned about America going to war too hastily. The responsible Washington position is to be for all of these things without question or hesitation.

And by each measure, Robert Gates has now outed himself as an isolationist.

In his new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, the former defense secretary shows us the behind the scenes politicking of American foreign policy during his tenure under Obama and Bush. It was Gates job to help conduct, or clean up, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and US intervention in Libya in 2011. His book is largely about the futility and occasional successes of those efforts.

Gates also wonders whether some of them should have been efforts at all:

“Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike — as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.”

Some Republicans have suggested in recent years that presidents overstep their constitutional authority by going to war without congressional approval. Gates too, apparently thinks the Constitution gets it right, lamenting the executive’s modern ability to use force abroad too easily.

Gates faults hawkish ideologues on both the right and left for trying to police the world:

“Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do — and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.”

Gates’ statement, “the rest of the world see the US as a militaristic country,” is the kind of talk that would get him labeled part of the “Blame America First Crowd” in another context. Suggesting there should be practical limits to what America does abroad is exactly what those who cry “isolationist” fear most — prudence, restraint, diplomacy and thoughtful deliberation.

Gates’ opinion of modern warfare is also a powerful antiwar statement:

“[The perils of hasty military action are] particularly worth remembering as technology changes the face of war. A button is pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. A bomb destroys the targeted house on the right and leaves the one on the left intact. For too many people — including defense “experts,” members of Congress, executive branch officials and ordinary citizens — war has become a kind of videogame or action movie: bloodless, painless and odorless. But my years at the Pentagon left me even more skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest that war is anything other than tragic, inefficient and uncertain.”

Gates insight and laments concerning U.S. foreign policy demonstrate the kind of clear thinking we should hope any American leader would have about war. When some in Congress have expressed similar sentiments and concerns, they are immediately attacked as isolationists and deemed far outside the mainstream of contemporary thought and policy.

But Washington leaders mistake beltway consensus for the mainstream. So committed they are to the righteousness of their own status quo, they forget the definition of insanity and resign themselves to a bubble where cost/benefit analyses never apply. Things can be conventional but not wise.

The possibility of intervention in Syria last year reminded us of the wide chasm between beltway groupthink and the average American, when a strong majority opposed getting involved in that country’s civil war. Did America become “isolationist” last September or did common sense finally prevail? Is America today in danger of too much foreign intervention or too little? Is it not truly extreme to suggest that merely asking the question presents some civilizational crisis?

Is it too easy for presidents to go to war? Is policing the world a fool’s errand? Is America’s image tarnished by endless intervention? Is war inherently “tragic, inefficient and uncertain?”

Is Robert Gates an isolationist?