Robert Gates' Farewell Address

I've never been a huge fan of Robert Gates, even though friends whose judgment I trust hold him in high regard. But as his tenure as Secretary of Defense comes to a close, I'm prepared to concede that he exceeded my initial expectations. He had the advantage of succeeding Donald Rumsfeld -- whose combination of arrogance and incompetence could make anyone look good by comparison -- but Gates has also shown remarkable balance, common-sense and imagination in dealing with one of the world's more challenging managerial jobs.  Of course, Gates is often regarded as something of a realist, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

In any case, today I commend to you Gates' final policy speech, which he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute a couple of days ago. It's not the equivalent of Eisenhower's famous farewell address on the "military-industrial complex," but it is a sober and realistic assessment of some of the things that the Department of Defense needs to do. 

Most importantly, it acknowledges that cold hard fact that DoD will have to do it with less money, and that this is ok.  Money quote: 

But as I am fond of saying, we live in the real world. Absent a catastrophic international conflict or a new existential threat, we are not likely to return to Cold War levels of defense expenditures, at least as a share of national wealth, anytime soon. Nor do I believe we need to."

Translation: sorry, folks: but you can't fight a couple of costly wars, experience a major global financial meltdown, and spend nearly a decade cutting taxes, and still expect to have lots of money to throw at national security. And it would be foolish to do so even if we did, because we live in an era where we face no existential great power threats. Instead, our main priority needs to be getting our economic house in order and preparing for longer-term challenges down the road, while maintaining the essential elements of our current global security role.

One of the classic tradeoffs in national security is between measures that increase short-term readiness and those that enhance long-term strength.  We could be a lot stronger in the short-term if we ramped up defense spending -- even if there wasn't an obvious need -- but if we neglected our fiscal health, education, national infrastructure, etc., then we would end up a lot weaker down the road. Which is why I think we should be focusing a lot more attention on long-term capacity building than fighting costly wars in places that don't matter very much (like Afghanistan).

Furthermore, although Gates elides this issue in his speech, the various pressures that are going to constrain national security spending in the years ahead are also going to put some limits on our global ambitions. The United States will remain a very powerful and very influential international actor; indeed, it will probably be the single most powerful and influential player on the globe for many years to come. But it won't be quite as dominant as it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II, or as it appeared to be at the end of the Cold War. Instead of trying to dictate events in virtually every corner of the world, future US leaders are going to have to pick-and-choose a bit more, and rely more on regional allies who will have their own interests and preferences and may be unwilling to follow Washington's guidance from time to time. That's not necessarily a bad world to be living in, but it will require considerable adjustment in how we do business. And after sixty-plus years of global primacy, getting used to that fact is likely to take awhile.

Stephen M. Walt

'The smallest minds and cowardliest hearts': Is Congress clapping for apartheid?

Mark Twain once described members of Congress as having "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes." Twain's mordant assessment provides a parsimonious explanation for the predictably rapturous reception that Bibi Netanyahu received there yesterday. All one can say about the vast majority of our courageous elected officials is that they aren't genuine friends of Israel, because every burst of applause was another nail in the coffin of the Zionist dream.  

Why? Because Netanyahu's central message yesterday was an emphatic rejection of a genuine two-state solution. While professing to be willing to make major sacrifices for the sake of peace, his lengthy list of preconditions made it abundantly clear that he thinks Israel is entitled to rule the Palestinian population in perpetuity-even when it becomes numerically larger than Israel's Jewish citizens -- and that the United States should back this effort no matter what. And even though the only alternatives to a two-state solution are 1) further ethnic cleansing, 2) a binational, one-state democracy, or 3) permanent apartheid, Congress is just fine with that.

It would be both tiresome and fruitless to fisk Netanyahu's speech in its entirety, but you can find intelligent commentary on it here, here, here, and here. And don't miss Lara Friedman's hilarious annotated version here. Among his various applause lines, my personal favorite was the claim that Israel has to keep its settlements because 650,000 people (i.e., about 10 percent of Israel's population) now live in them. (It's not entirely clear where Netanyahu got that number, as most estimates of the settler population put it "only" half a million or so.)

The key point, however, is that the settlements didn't sprout spontaneously, and the settlers themselves didn't just show up by accident. On the contrary, the vast majority of the settlers are there because every Israeli government since 1967 has actively promoted and subsidized the colonization of the West Bank, even though this policy is contrary to international law and at odds with measures such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. Not only does 242 say that Israel should withdraw from territories occupied in the Six Day War (the French version of the official text  says "the territories") but it begins by emphasizing "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force." The United States played a key role in drafting the resolution, and then effectively ignored its implications for the next forty years.

Some people still believe that settlement building was just a wacky project undertaken and backed primarily by religious extremists and by rightwing parties like Likud. In fact, colonization of the West Bank began under the Labor-led governments in the 1960s and 1970s, and governments of all stripes have backed it without exception. Read Gershom Gorenberg's Accidental Empire, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land, or Shlomo Gazit's Trapped Fools, and you will learn that settlement building was a deliberate policy designed to "create facts," so that future prime ministers like Netanyahu could claim it was simply impossible for Israel to withdraw.  And the location of key settlement blocs like Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim were chosen to secure Israeli control over key aquifers and make it difficult-to-impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. 

As I said in my previous post, Israel faces a choice -- a two-state solution or apartheid -- and it is now crystal-clear which one Netanyahu has chosen. I see this situation as genuinely tragic, as he is condemning several more generations to live in bitter conflict and putting his own country's future at risk. That's his privilege, I suppose, but America's blind support for this foolish policy is also a serious threat to U.S. national security. So if your Congressman or Senator was clapping loudly yesterday, you might drop him or her a note and ask why they care more about subsidizing an illegal and unjust occupation than they do about America's long-term welfare and well-being. You'll probably discover that Twain was on to something.