Memo to Robert Gates: Duty, Sir, Lies in Getting a War's Premise Right

"Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of," Gates writes. Indeed! And the way to make wars much harder to get into is the requirement of an airtight premise, one worth dying for, one justifying the condolences to a dead soldier's family.
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Taking a shot at the commander-in-chief he served, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in his new book faults President Barack Obama for a lack of "passion" in his prosecution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, citing him instead for just wanting to get out.

By contrast, Gates lauds the decisiveness of Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, who "had no second thoughts about Iraq, including our decision to invade." (Gates served as Bush's Secretary of Defense, coming in after the invasion, in 2006, and continued serving under President Obama until 2011.)

How disappointing that Gates should praise Bush's decisiveness, because that's the problem: Bush should have had second thoughts -- and third, and fourth, and fifth thoughts -- about invading Iraq and pulling focus from the war in Afghanistan, and he should have ruled against it. A leader can be decisive and wrong, wrong, wrong.

How? The premise of Bush's decisiveness, the raison de la guerre, was fraudulent, a fiction: to remove Saddam Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. And because the Iraq war's premise was fraudulent, it underwent premise-creep throughout the ensuing years of grueling combat -- to democracy-installation, to securing the country so we could exit, etc.

So, yes: No doubt heartsick, Mr. Obama lacks passion for these wars -- and the millions of us who voted for him principally for his anti-war stance laud him for it; moreover, we are glad to hear from an insider how forcefully Mr. Obama is conducting both wars' endgame. For while Afghanistan began as the "good" war -- retaliation against al Qaeda for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on U.S. soil -- it too suffers from premise-creep.

In short: If a war's premise is not airtight in its inception, and if because it is not airtight it is not embraced by the mass of the American public who are willing to sacrifice for that premise, then nothing can make that war right, no matter the expenditure in blood, sweat and tears.

And the dearest of these expenditures is our troops' blood.

Gates titles his book with the loftiest of words, a word that resonates in the hearts of the military and public alike: Duty. Sir: It is the "duty" of the commander-in-chief, more to the point it is the duty most grave and most paramount for a commander-in-chief, to get a war's premise right -- or else foreswear launching that war altogether. Because on the sturdiness of that premise depends the very lives and welfare of the troops.

Much has been made in the massive media coverage of Gates' book about his love of the men and women in the military. He writes of the agony of writing condolence letters to the dead troops' families. And he writes that he intends to be buried in Arlington military cemetery, to lie in eternity with the troops. All well and admirable. But, again, the best way to show one's love of the troops is to ensure that the premise of the war in which they put their lives on the line and even die, the Why of their war, is fully answerable and worthy of giving up one's life.

Curiously, in a book described as replete with contradictions, while Gates faults President Obama for a perceived lack of passion for the mission, still he does not cite Mr. Obama for actual bad decision-making in either war. Specifically as to Obama's chief Afghanistan policies, "I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions," he writes. More generally, "I thought Obama did the right things on national security," he goes on, "but everything came across as politically calculated."

Fittingly, Mr. Obama has not fired back at Gates' attacks. After all, Mr. Obama has the "duty" to serve as the troops' protector and defender, with our role in the Afghanistan war still to be concluded.

It is sad that Gates is not magnanimous enough to see that President Obama, and millions of like-minded Americans, define "duty" in ways different from his own but that are equally heart-felt, patriotic and defensible. One can be anti-war and shed tears for the troops. Would that Gates had pity for the anti-war President trying honorably to bring two inherited wars to an end? Moreover, there is the matter of attacking one's sitting commander-in-chief: It is bad form. Why couldn't what's been described as an "emotional" memoir wait? As for premises, one has to wonder about the premise of this book: Is Gates feeling guilty for his part in executing bad wars? What does it mean that, instead of referring to himself as a Secretary of Defense, his subtitle is Memoirs of a Secretary at War?

At the least, Gates' example argues against future presidents assembling a "team of rivals" in the cabinet, made up of members of opposing political parties (Gates is a Republican). Especially in the prosecution of a war, if the secretary of defense cannot agree with his commander-in-chief on the war's premise and execution, he should not accept the position and he should take his opposition outside.

"Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of," Gates writes. Indeed! And the way to make wars much harder to get into is the requirement of an airtight premise, one worth dying for, one justifying the condolences to a dead soldier's family. The United States especially, which has gotten into too many ill-premised wars since World War II and which remains the world's leading power, needs to check its power and discipline itself in this regard.

Premise: It all starts with, and it all ends with, the premise.

For my earlier post, "A War's Premise Must Justify the Troops' Suffering," see here.

For an excerpt of the Gates book, whose release date is Jan. 14, see here. For reviews of the book, see here, here, here, and here. For other coverage, see here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Her book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," came out in 2009. Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Her husband served in the military for 32 years.

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