There are many reasons why President George W. Bush might have wanted to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert M. Gates: To distance himself from the current military disaster in Iraq, to make the adoption of a new Iraqi strategy easier, to prevent further disunity within the military, or to clear the path for a revival of Republican fortunes in the 2008 elections. All of these may, in fact, have been contributing factors in Gates’ appointment; yet, on a deeper level, the move can also be read as signaling a momentous shift in America’s global posture — from imperial offense to imperial defense.
For the past six years, the top officials in charge of American foreign and military policy have known how to play rough-and-tumble offensive football, but were simply clueless when it came to defense. However, just as every football team must, at some point, surrender possession of the ball and bring in its defensive specialists to stop the other team from scoring a touchdown, so the President has evidently at long last called for a changing of the guard. Far too late in the game, he’s finally decided to send the defense onto the field for Team America. This is Bob Gates’ historic mission.
After all the setbacks and spilt blood in Iraq, it’s nearly impossible even to recall those heady days in late 2001 when President Bush and his acolytes announced that we were entering a new epoch of enduring American greatness — a golden era in which the United States would use its overwhelming military might to spread its divinely-inspired values to the rest of the world.
This vision of American beliefs carried to the far ends of the earth at the point of a sword (or, at least, the modern Cruise and Hellfire-missile-armed equivalents thereof) was first concocted in right-wing think-tanks and talk-shops like the Project for the New American Century during the second Clinton administration. It was then quietly incorporated into the Bush campaign of 1999-2000. In perhaps the most evocative, if not yet fully militarized, expression of this messianic prospect, then-Governor Bush told an appreciative audience at the Citadel on September 23, 1999 that, in rebuilding the U.S. military after the supposed neglect of the Clinton years, his goal would be “to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity — given few nations in history — to extend the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to project America’s peaceful influence, not just across the world, but across the years.”
To achieve such a grandiose vision, as its planners imagined it, required a substantial expansion of the military’s capacity to “project power” to remote areas of the developing world, far from the existing Pentagon infrastructure in Europe and the Pacific. “We must be able to project our power over long distances, in days or weeks,” Bush explained at the Citadel. “Our forces in the next century,” he added, “must be agile, lethal, readily deployable, and require a minimum of logistical support.” Here, the football analogy was already unmistakably present. Surely, the President was describing a swift, no-huddle, run-and-pass offense. To captain this offense-oriented outfit, Bush chose Donald Rumsfeld, a true fellow-believer, who would oversee the “transformation” of the U.S. military from a stodgy, ponderous Cold War relic into a fleet, agile, “readily deployable” tool capable of sustaining his global crusade.
Then came September 11. In its wake, the President and his Secretary of Defense added a new element to their global agenda: the preemptive emasculation of hostile states deemed capable of posing a future threat to American dominance. This new policy — quickly dubbed the “Bush Doctrine” — was first spelled out in a June 2002 commencement speech Bush gave at West Point. “The war on terror will not be won on the defensive,” he exclaimed. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.”
This, of course, required yet another expansion of U.S. military capabilities, focusing again on America’s capacity for power projection to distant lands. In the view of Bush, Vice President Cheney, and his close pal Rumsfeld, as well as the neoconservative punditry, it also required a willingness to employ force in a muscular and conspicuous manner, so as to intimidate potential rivals into submission. “In the world we have entered,” Bush declared at West Point, “the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.”
It was this aggressive impulse more than anything else that tipped the balance toward war with Iraq. “At the extreme,” commented John Ikenberry of Georgetown University, these newly introduced notions formed “a neo-imperial vision in which the United States arrogates to itself the global role of setting standards, determining threats, using force, and meting out justice.”
And so began the rush to war with Iraq — with visions of victory not just in Baghdad but subsequently in Tehran, Damascus, and who knows where else dancing in the minds of the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Bush backfield, their various offensive linemen, and a bevy of overly enthusiastic cheerleaders on the sidelines. A few months before the onset of hostilities, the administration adopted a new National Security Strategy document enshrining the Bush doctrine as formal U.S. policy and indicating a readiness to conduct any number of “preventive” assaults on potential adversaries. “The publication of the strategy was the signal that Iraq would be the first test [of the new doctrine], not the last,” a high official involved in its drafting told David E. Sanger and Steven E. Weisman of the New York Times after the attack on Iraq had commenced.”
As we now know, the “agile, lethal, readily deployable” force assembled by Donald Rumsfeld in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein did a remarkable job of penetrating Iraqi defenses and scoring the touchdown that the elder President Bush had passed up in Baghdad twelve years earlier, but has proved wholly incapable of defending the capital and vital U.S. interests in Iraq ever since. If George Bush goes down in history as a failed president, it will be for this. After it became inescapably evident that American forces needed to shift quickly to a defensive strategy and put in place leadership better suited to manage such a shift — a point reached well before the end of 2004 in Iraq — Bush chose to cling to the old strategy as well as the old leadership, and simply go on hallucinating about a last-second miracle touchdown that would avert certain defeat. It took a while, but the American public finally grasped the insane folly of this stance and voted for change on November 7.
Of course, the President — his approval rating in the latest Newsweek poll at 31%, a personal low — was not up for reelection on November 7, or he too would be out of a job. Still, having dimly perceived the true nature of America’s existential predicament, he did the next best thing, and finally began to replace his top imperial team with defensive specialists. This is not to suggest that Gates and his patron, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, are any less dedicated imperial managers than Cheney and Rumsfeld. Far from it: they are just as committed to some form of perpetual American global supremacy — but they seem to have some grasp of the actual limits of American power, as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the neocon appointees under them never did.
Cheney and Rumsfeld thought that there was endless stretch to imperial overstretch and, as a result, managed to push American power (military and economic) so hard in the service of their dreams of global dominion that the actual imperial might of the United States began to crack and give way under the strain. Gates is all too aware of the vulnerabilities this opens up — like a football coach whose team has suddenly found itself deep in its own territory. That’s the moment, of course, when you need to pay closer attention to your adversaries; you need to psych out their strategies and tactics; you have to be able to play defense and give up some yards when endless blitzes of the other team’s quarterback prove futile; you have to establish fall-back positions you can hold onto. Rumsfeld could never master those skills; Gates, with his long experience in the intelligence community, already has. It is for this reason, more than any other, that he was chosen at this pivotal moment in American history.
It is too early to foresee what particular course Gates and his soon-to-be-selected associates will adopt in their effort to refashion American strategy in light of current international realities. But any notion of emerging triumphant from Iraq will now be abandoned, and the search will be on for a strategy that would allow the United States to extricate itself from the Iraqi morass while retaining its dominant position in the greater Persian Gulf region. This has become the overarching objective.
Such a withdrawal will require the tacit acquiescence of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, both of which have a stake in the outcome of the Iraqi imbroglio and possess an ability to frustrate any American plans that run counter to their fundamental interests. Hence, these nations must be consulted as part of the process, a move expected to be advocated by the Iraq Study Group (of which Baker is co-chair and Gates was, until recently, a member). This, in turn, will require that talk of air strikes against Iran or of “regime change” in Damascus be muzzled in Washington, at least for the time being.
From a long-term strategic perspective, the most serious task facing the new imperial cadre is to rebuild American ground forces after three years of relentless combat in Iraq. The lean, agile machine envisioned by Bush and Rumsfeld before 2001 was never designed for the sort of brutal urban warfare it has been exposed to in Baghdad. (“Why carry heavy armor? It only slows you down” was the prevailing Pentagon attitude back then.) It will take several hard years and a great deal of money to restore the Army and Marines to any sort of combat proficiency.
Messrs. Gates, Baker, and Associates understand full well that a vision of enduring U.S. supremacy will continue to govern American political thinking — and that there will be many tests of American hegemony to come. But more than others in and around the White House, they recognize that this is a time for adopting a defensive stance if the United States is ever to go on the offensive again.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books).
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]