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The Next Mideast War

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Iran is "Hell-Bent" on Nuclear, But Consider the Three Axioms of Warfare

April 28th 2008

 - Robert Gates headshot
Defense Sec. Robert Gates

Generals Ike Eisenhower and George Marshall, of course, are legends—icons etched in granite. Both were influenced by another senior Army officer who is not nearly as well-known. His name is Fox Conner, and he served as a tutor and mentor to both men. Conner had three principles or rules of war for a democracy that he imparted to Eisenhower and Marshall. They were:

     • Never fight unless you have to;
     • Never fight alone; and
     • Never fight for long.

All things being equal, these principles are pretty straightforward and strategically sound. We have heard variants of them in the decades since—the Powell Doctrine being the most famous of recent times. But, of course, all things are not equal, particularly when you think about the range and complexity of the threats facing America today—from the wars we are in to the conflicts we are most likely to fight. So, I’d like to discuss how you should think about applying Fox Conner’s three axioms to the security challenges of the 21st Century—challenges where you will be on the front line.

“Never go to war unless you have to.”

That one should only go to war as a last resort has long been a principle of civilized people; we know its horrors and costs. War is by nature unpredictable and uncontrollable. Winston Churchill wrote in January 1942, “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter... Once the signal is given, [the statesman] is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

In a dictatorship, the government can force the population to fall in behind the war effort, at least for some time. The nature of democracy, however, limits a country’s ability to wage war—and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, with perhaps the exception of World War II, every conflict in America’s history has been divisive and controversial here at home. Contrary to what General Patton said in his pep talks, most real Americans do not love to fight.

Consider the conflicts today. Afghanistan is widely viewed as a war of necessity: striking back at the staging ground of the perpetrators of September 11th. The Iraq campaign, while justified, in my view, is seen differently by many people. A few weeks ago, I testified before the Congress on the Iraq War. I observed that we were attacked at home in 2001 from Afghanistan, and we are at war in Afghanistan today, in no small measure because we mistakenly turned our backs on Afghanistan after the Soviet troops left in the late 1980s. We made a strategic mistake in the end game of that war. If we get the end game wrong in Iraq, I told the Congress, the consequences will be far worse.

It is a hard sell to say we must sustain the fight in Iraq right now, and continue to absorb the high financial and human costs of this struggle, in order to avoid an even uglier fight or even greater danger to our country in the future. But we have Afghanistan to remind us that those are not just hypothetical risks.

Conner’s first axiom—never fight unless you have to—looms over policy discussions today on rogue nations like Iran. Iran supports terrorism, is a destabilizing force throughout the Middle East and Southwest Asia and, in my judgment, is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels. But the military option must be kept on the table, given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat—either directly or through proliferation.

And then there is the threat posed by violent jihadist networks. The doctrine of pre-emption has been criticized in some quarters. But it is an answer to legitimate questions: With the possibility of the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical materials, and the willingness of terrorists to use them without warning, can we wait to respond until after a catastrophic attack is either imminent or has already occurred? Given the importance of public opinion and public support, how does one justify military action to prevent something that might happen tomorrow or several years down the road? While “never fight unless you have to” does not preclude pre-emption, after our experience with flawed information regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, how high must the threshold of confidence in our intelligence have to be to justify—at home and abroad—a pre-emptive or preventive war?

Conner’s second axiom was, “Never fight alone.”

He recognized from the onset that the way World War I ended, in particular, the terms of the Versailles Treaty, made another major conflict with Germany almost inevitable. Victory would require a strong partnership of the Anglo-American democracies, and the most successful Army officers would have to adapt to working with allies and partners. Eisenhower and Marshall executed this concept brilliantly in World War II, despite the fact that, as one historian wrote about the allied generals that Eisenhower had to deal with “as fractious and dysfunctional a group of egomaniacs as any war had even seen.”

Nonetheless, as Perry writes, “Eisenhower was a commander who believed that building and maintaining an international coalition of democracies was not a political nicety... but a matter of national survival.” And he brought this conviction to the founding of NATO.

But what do you do when, as is the case today with NATO in Afghanistan, some of your allies don’t want to fight? Or they impose caveats on where, when, and how their forces may be used? Or their defense budgets are too small as a share of national wealth to provide a substantial contribution? Not counting the United States, NATO has more than two million men and women in uniform, yet we struggle to sustain the deployment of fewer than 30,000 non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and are forced to scrounge, hat in hand, to replace a few helicopters.

In August 1998, after the terrorist bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, I wrote an op-ed about terrorism and national priorities for the New York Times. I noted that taking a more aggressive approach to terrorism would, in virtually all cases, require America to “act violently and alone.” Even after September 11th, and a string of attacks in Europe and elsewhere, the publics of many of our democratic allies view the terror threat in a fundamentally different way than we do—and this continues to be a real obstacle with regard to Afghanistan and other issues.

But, as Churchill said, the only thing worse than having allies is not having them at all.They provide balance, credibility, and legitimacy in the eyes of much of the world. In the case of Afghanistan, one should never discount the power of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful democracies coming together, as they did in Bucharest three weeks ago, to reaffirm publicly their commitment to this mission. Nor, above all, should we forget the superb performance in combat and sacrifices of allies like the British, Canadians, Australians, Danes, Dutch, and others.

Indeed, just about every threat to our security in the years ahead will require working with or through other nations.Success in the war on terror will depend less on the fighting we do ourselves, and more on how well we support our allies and partners in the moderate Muslim world and elsewhere. In fact, from the standpoint of America’s national security, the most important assignment in your military career may not necessarily be commanding U.S. soldiers, but advising or mentoring the troops of other nations as they battle forces of terror and instability within their own borders.

Finally, Fox Conner said, “Never fight for long.”

General Conner believed that “American lives were precious, and no democracy, no matter how pressed, could afford to try the patience of its people.” Early on, Conner instilled the idea in both Eisenhower and Marshall of finding the enemy, fighting the enemy, and defeating the enemy, all within a short timeframe.

In World War II, the American people had already begun to lose patience by the fall of 1944, when the lightning dash across the plains of France following D-Day gave way to a soggy, bloody stalemate along Germany’s western border.And that was only two-and-a-half years after Pearl Harbor. Eisenhower no doubt had this in mind when he became president during the 3rd year of the Korean War. He believed that the United States—and the American people—could not tolerate being bogged down in a bloody, interminable stalemate in northeast Asia while the Soviets menaced the West, elsewhere, particularly in Europe. Eisenhower was even willing to threaten the nuclear option to bring that conflict to a close.

It’s now been six-and-a-half years since the attacks of September 11th, and we just marked the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.For America, this has been the second longest war since the Revolutionary War, and the first since then to be fought throughout with an all-volunteer force. In Iraq and Afghanistan, initial quick military successes have led to protracted stability and reconstruction campaigns against brutal and adaptable insurgencies and terrorists. This has tested the mettle of our military and the patience of our people in ways we haven’t seen in more than a generation. At the turn of the 21st century, the U.S. armed forces were still organized, trained, and equipped to fight short, large-scale conventional wars, not the long, messy, unconventional operations that proliferated following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The same traditional orientation was true of our procurement procedures, military health care, and more. The current campaign has gone on longer, and has been more difficult, than anyone expected or prepared for at the start. And so we’ve had to scramble to position ourselves for success over the long haul, which I believe we are doing.

A drawdown of U.S. force levels in Iraq is inevitable over time; the debate you hear in Washington is largely about pacing.But the kind of enemy we face today,  violent jihadist networks, will not allow us to remain at peace. What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity. This generational challenge cannot be wished away or put on a timetable. There are no exit strategies. To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us.

How America’s military and civilian leadership grapples with these transcendent issues and dilemmas will determine how, where, and when you may be sent into battle in the years ahead. In order to succeed in the asymmetric battlefields of the 21st century—the dominant combat environment in the decades to come, in my view—our Army will require leaders of uncommon agility, resourcefulness, and imagination; leaders willing and able to think and act creatively and decisively in a different kind of world and a different kind of conflict than we have prepared for over the last six decades. One thing will remain the same: we will still need men and women in uniform to call things as they see them and tell their subordinates and superiors alike what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

Here, too, Marshall is a particularly worthy role model. In late 1917, during World War I, the U.S. military staff in France was conducting a combat exercise for the American Expeditionary Force commander. General Pershing was in a foul mood. He dismissed critiques from one subordinate officer after another, and stalked off. But then-Captain Marshall took the arm of the four-star general, turned him around, and told him how the problems they were having resulted from not receiving a necessary manual from the American headquarters—Pershing’s headquarters. The commander said, “You know we have our troubles.” Marshall replied, “Yes, I know you do, General… But ours are immediate and every day and have to be solved before night.”

After the meeting, Marshall was approached by other officers offering condolences for the fact he was almost sure to be fired and sent off to the front line.Instead, Marshall became a valued advisor to Pershing, and Pershing a valued mentor to Marshall. Twenty years later, then-General Marshall was sitting in the White House with President Roosevelt and all of his top advisors and Cabinet secretaries.War in Europe was looming, but still a distant possibility for an isolated America. In that meeting, Roosevelt proposed that the U.S. Army, which at that time ranked in size somewhere between that of Switzerland and Portugal, should be of lowest priority for funding and industry. FDR’s advisors nodded. Building an Army could wait. Then, FDR, looking for the military’s imprimatur to his decision, said, “Don’t you think so, George?” Marshall, who did not like being called by his first name, said, “I am sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t agree with that at all.” The room went silent. The Treasury Secretary told Marshall afterwards, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” It was not too much later that Marshall became Army Chief of Staff.

There are other more recent examples of senior officers speaking frankly to their civilian leaders. Just before the ground war started against Iraq in February 1991, General Colin Powell, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with the President, the first President Bush. I was there in the Oval Office. Colin looked the President in the eye and said words to this effect: “We are about to go to war.We may suffer thousands of casualties.If we do, are you prepared to drive on to victory? Will you stay the course?” Colin wanted the President to face hard reality. The President gave the right answer.

I should note at this point, that in my 16 months as Secretary of Defense, I have changed several important decisions because of general officers disagreeing with me and persuading me of a better course of action. For example, at one point I had decided to shake up a particular command by appointing a commander from a different service than had ever held the post. A senior service chief persuaded me to change my mind.

On trips to the front, I’ve also made it a priority to meet and hear from small groups of soldiers ranging from junior enlisted to field-grade officers. Their input has been invaluable and shaped my thinking and decisions as well. All in senior positions should listen to enlisted soldiers, NCOs, and company and field-grade officers.They are the ones on the front line, and they know the real story.

More broadly, if as an officer you don’t tell blunt truths—and create an environment where candor is encouraged—then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice. This admonition goes back beyond the roots of our republic. Sir Francis Bacon was a 17th century jurist and philosopher, as well as a confidante and senior minister of England’s King James.He gave this advice to a protégé looking to follow in his steps at court: “Remember well the great trust you have undertaken; you are as a continual sentinel, always to stand upon your watch to give [the King] true intelligence.If you flatter him, you betray him.”

In Marshall’s case, he was able to forge a bond of trust with Roosevelt not only because his civilian boss could count on his candor, but also because once a decision was made, FDR could also count on Marshall to do his utmost to carry out a policy—even if he disagreed with it—and make it work.This is important, because the two men clashed time and time again in the years that followed, ranging from yet more matters of war production to whether the allies should defer an invasion of mainland Europe.

Consider the situation in mid-1940. The Germans had just overrun France and the Battle of Britain was about to begin. FDR believed that rushing arms and equipment to Britain, including half of America’s bomber production, should be the top priority in order to save our ally. Marshall believed rearming the United States should come first. Roosevelt overruled Marshall and others and came down with what most historians consider the correct decision: to do what was necessary to keep England alive.

The significant thing is what did not happen next: there was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall’s position among a whole host of newspapers, congressmen, and lobbies.Yet Marshall did not exploit and use them.There were no overtures to friendly committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition building with advocacy groups. Marshall and his colleagues made the policy work—and kept England alive.

In the ensuing decades, a large, permanent military establishment emerged as a result of the Cold War, an establishment that forged deep ties to the Congress and industry. Over the years, senior officers have, from time to time, been tempted to use these ties to do end runs around the civilian leadership, particularly during disputes over the purchase of major weapons systems. This temptation should and must be resisted. Marshall has been recognized as the textbook model for the way military officers should handle disagreements with superiors, and in particular the civilians vested with control of the armed forces by our Constitution.The duties of an officer are:

           • To provide blunt, candid advice always;
           • To keep disagreements private;
           • To implement faithfully decisions that go against you.

As with Fox Conner’s lessons of war, these principles are a solid starting point for dealing with issues of candor, dissent, and duty.But like Conner’s axioms, applying these principles to the situations military leaders face today and in the future is a good deal more complicated.

World War II was America’s last straightforward, conventional conflict that ended in the unconditional surrender of the other side.The military campaigns since—from Korea, to Vietnam, Somalia, and Iraq today—have been frustrating, controversial efforts for the American public and for the U.S. armed forces.Each conflict has prompted debates over whether senior military officers were being too deferential or not deferential enough to civilians, and whether civilians in turn were either too receptive, or not receptive enough to military advice.

In the absence of clear lines of advance or retreat on the battlefield, each has conflict prompted our nation’s senior civilian and military leadership to seek the support of an increasingly skeptical American public using a variety of criteria and metrics, from enemy body counts to voting turnout. Then, as now, the American people relied especially on the candor and credibility of military leaders in order to judge how well a campaign is going, and whether the effort should continue. Candor and credibility remain indispensable because we will see yet more irregular and difficult conflicts of varying types in the years ahead, conflicts where the traditional duties of an officer are accompanied by real dilemmas—dilemmas posed by a non-linear environment made up of civilians, detainees, contractors, embedded media, and an adversary that does not wear uniforms or obey the laws of war. An adversary that could be your enemy on one day or, as we’ve seen in Iraq’s Anbar Province, your partner the next.

Robert Gates is the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

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