Letters

Hall of Famers

Lawrence Korb takes issue with Fred Kaplan's representation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates's record.

In calling Robert Gates the most revolutionary leader in the Pentagon since Robert McNamara, Fred Kaplan ("The Transformer," September/October 2010) not only overstates Gates's real accomplishments, but he ignores the secretary who changed the way the Pentagon does business and fights wars more than any other -- that is, Melvin Laird, who was U.S. defense secretary from 1969 to 1973.

In his four years at the helm, over the unanimous opposition of military leaders and many in Congress, Laird withdrew more than 500,000 troops from Vietnam by establishing the policy of Vietnamization, ended the draft, created the all-volunteer military, and developed weapons systems like the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 aircraft and cruise missiles, which are still in the force and provided the foundation for winning the Cold War. He also brought weapons-systems cost growth under control by instituting a "fly before you buy" concept. And he did this while bringing defense spending down by more than 25 percent in real terms so that the United States could deal with issues like the environment and the rising cost of Social Security without bankrupting the country.

Gates does deserve credit for getting the Pentagon to buy more drones and MRAP vehicles and for implementing his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld's decision to stop production of the F-22 at 187 (actually, Rumsfeld said 184). However, he continues to increase defense spending in real terms despite the massive U.S. federal debt. Moreover, though he has raised questions about the big issues like the number of aircraft carriers or the role of the Marine Corps, he has not followed up by taking decisive action.

In fact, when it comes to these issues, Gates told Kaplan: "I may be bold, but I'm not crazy." Well, by this standard, McNamara and Laird were crazy, and the country is better off because they were.

Lawrence Korb
Senior Fellow
Center for American Progress
Washington, D.C.

Fred Kaplan replies:

Melvin Laird certainly coined the term "Vietnamization" and pushed President Richard Nixon to withdraw more troops. For that alone, he deserves a spot in the SecDef hall of fame. But it was Nixon who ended the draft through a presidential commission to which he named as chairman Alan Greenspan, then still an Ayn Rand-influenced libertarian who likened conscription to taxes and detested both.

Laird did cut defense spending, but he got the services to go along by letting the military buy whatever it wanted with the remaining funds, a tradeoff it welcomed after McNamara's hands-on management. The weapons that Lawrence Korb mentions were already on the services' dockets; Laird had nothing to do with their creation (and it's a stretch to claim they won the Cold War).

As for Korb's recitation of Gates's limits as a transformer, I fully agree and said as much in my article. For Gates to fulfill his stated agenda, he should at least consider cutting an aircraft carrier. But Laird wasn't disposed to laying into the established "force structure," either.

Letters

True North

Rob Huebert counters Lawson W. Brigham's assertion of a peaceful Arctic.

Lawson W. Brigham's insightful dissection of the core issues facing the Arctic ("Think Again: The Arctic," September/October 2010) is both succinct and largely correct. But he goes off track by suggesting that there is little likelihood of a serious conflict in the region. Hopefully he is correct, but some recent developments contradict his assessment. Although there is little likelihood of conflict in the Arctic now, there are three emerging trends that suggest that Brigham's optimism will unfortunately be short-lived.

First, all the Arctic states have recently developed Arctic foreign and defense policy statements. These tend to begin with a commitment to cooperate, but warn that the country will take unilateral action to defend its Arctic interests in case of any threat. Within these documents, most of the Arctic states have also begun to re-emphasize a central role for their military forces. Second, almost all the Arctic states have begun to conduct larger and more complex military exercises in the Arctic. Third, and most importantly, several of the Arctic states -- the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Russia -- have begun to substantially strengthen their militaries' abilities to operate in the high north.

Taken as a whole, Arctic states are dedicating considerable effort and resources to bolster their combat capabilities in the Arctic. This does not automatically mean conflict is imminent, but it is clear that the Arctic states now think it is necessary to rearm themselves in the region. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they think the possibility of conflict is growing.

Rob Huebert
Professor of Political Science
University of Calgary
Calgary, Canada

Lawson W. Brigham replies:

I agree with Rob Huebert -- in part. There has indeed been some modest military buildup by the Arctic states. But that buildup hardly signals aggressive designs. Rather, it seems little more than a prosaic response to continued resource development -- national and commercial investment demand some sort of protection -- and to the greater transport and increased communication lines that will accompany the opening of the Arctic seascape.

Yes, the Arctic Ocean is a strategic waterway. It's not a surprise -- and not inconsistent with my article -- that Arctic states are revising their security postures in light of new economic opportunities and political priorities in the region. Those states increasing their military presence are acting to deter aggressive challenges from Arctic and non-Arctic states alike, thereby increasing stability. That the military buildups are largely benign is underscored by Nanook 10, a recent "sovereignty" exercise in the Canadian Arctic. Ottawa didn't conduct its business in secrecy; it actually invited Danish and U.S. forces to join their Canadian colleagues.

The Arctic situation has shifted from a Cold War posture to an emphasis on cooperative resource use, law enforcement, and environmental security. Thankfully, direct military conflict among the Arctic states is an increasingly distant possibility.