04/18/2011 12:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011

Gates Closing: Teller Window, Too?

Robert Gate's anticipated departure from the Pentagon coincides with the latest fillip of debate about some modest cuts in the defense budget. President Obama has proposed cumulative cuts of $400 billion over the next eleven years. Discounting for inflation, that amounts for just a few percent of current outlays. Indeed, when all the ancillary and follow-on costs of maintaining our military establishment are included, the prospective cuts come to just about two percent. The passion engendered is disproportionate to the sum. It is fueled by the current feud between a runaway Republican House and a White House dedicated to appeasement while still seeming to exercise a modicum of responsibility for the country's welfare.

Serious reduction of our outsized Pentagon budget is not even broached. Understandably so. For a critical scrutiny of how and where we spend these vast sums would require a probing look at 'why' -- in other words, strategic ends and purposes. Almost no one in Washington is ready to do that despite the country's stressed finances and the dubious benefits from the numerous military ventures that we have been funding during the 9/11 decade.

Robert Gates' tenure as secretary of defense has bracketed a turbulent period in American politics -- and in world affairs. In those four years, we have experienced two electoral cataclysms; the rise of a Messiah and his self exposure as a false prophet; return of the loony Right as an influential force; collapse of the global financial system riddled by institutionalized theft, governmental corruption and dogmatic ideology -- only to be resurrected at death's door by heavy doses of steroids provided by the victims. Plummeting tax revenues are the excuse for slashing public service of all kinds at all levels to nineteenth century standards. The entire country seethes with confused anger and resentment. Abroad, we are witnessing an historic upheaval in the Arab world with consequences as profound as the seismic events were unforeseen.

These stunning developments could be expected to change drastically the way that America and its leaders view the country's future, its place in the world, its goals and its capabilities. None of that has occurred. Those who direct the nation's foreign affairs are running a marathon without end as the United States plows ahead on the aimless course we have followed robotically throughout the 9/11 decade. No deviation, no reconsideration, no "what's it all about?" and no notice of the hole in our supposedly bottomless pocket. Only the addition to the course of a few more twists, turns and hurdles - perhaps to ensure that we don't flag out of either tedium or a sudden onset of critical thinking.

Mr. Gates has been justifier, promoter or active supporter of the marathon's every phase. For the last four years, he's been trainer and overseer. He has not played the role of skeptic or internal critic on any of our serial misadventures in the Greater Middle East. Gates carefully cultivated image as the voice of reasonableness is belied by that record of unalloyed dedication to the established line that he himself has helped impress on American foreign policy. Indeed, the record reveals a distressing pattern: a lack of congruity between public aura and actual behavior that borders on the habitually dishonest. Larry Korb recently has cataloged these recurrent discrepancies. Here are three:

First, Gates went to West Point and said that any secretary of defense who recommends sending large land armies into the Middle East, Asia or Africa should have his head examined. This is from a person who recommended sending over 100,000 additional troops into Iraq and Afghanistan (the Middle East and Asia). Second, Gates spoke at the annual meeting of the Navy League and questioned why the Navy needed 11 carrier battle groups when no other country has even one comparable group. But when asked if this meant we should cut the number of carrier battle groups he said no. Third, after going to the Eisenhower library and saying that the gusher of defense spending was over because of the exploding federal deficit, Gates later stated that defense should be exempt from deficit reduction because it had no part in creating the deficit.

A bit more candor on the measures we use for evaluating public performance in general is in order. If you believe that those policies, most of which continue to register painful costs, constitute a success, then Gates indeed deserves encomia. If you believe that the record is uniformly one of fiasco and tragic failure, as I do, then he gets low grades. The absence of candor is most damaging. For it thwarts debate of the strategic assumptions that propel the security juggernaut.*

So we plod forward on a fool's errand in Afghanistan whose purpose has become so obscure that Mr. Obama's team has stopped even trying to explain it. The only alteration is to extend the project into Pakistan where the terrain is even rougher and more hazardous. So we move incrementally to expand our network of bases across Southwest and Central Asia for no apparent reason other than each new location needs a further buffer of protection next door. So we plot to keep a foot in the Iraqi door while the natives are set on forgetting us as a bad memory as soon as possible. So we fulminate against Iran while building up the pressure on all fronts in the face of compelling evidence that the boiler will burst before the Mullah's regime does (witness the Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation that our actions have engendered). So we cultivate the fear among Americans of al-Qaeda the Great Satan so that free floating dread enables these Sisyphusian efforts. Al-Qaeda the omnipresent yet elusive menace to be pursued into the four corners of the earth -- which is exactly what we're doing under Mr. Gates' aegis. Special Forces ply their trade in Somalia, Niger, Chad, Mauretania, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq -- where we underwrote the franchise operation, Kyrgystan, and diverse spots in Southeast Asia. All this herculean effort despite a decade where the only terrorist attempts on the U.S. have been amateurish, half-baked affairs of very limited scope.

So, too, do we invest massively in the assets visualized as vital to victory in Pacific War II against China, thereby unwittingly giving the Chinese the option of simply owning us rather than conquering us -- a sublime anti-war strategy of sort. All of this proceeds on its own momentum, sheer inertia. As a sideline, we pursue a 'war on drugs' in Latin America that similarly devours resources to no avail. We employ many of the same personnel, equipment, doctrines and methods with the same empty results. The one thing the 'war on drugs' does not do is concentrate on the cause of the problem: millions of Americans are addicts whose demand for narcotics ensures that entrepreneurial groups always will be there to jump at the chance to supply them.

America's multidimensional, huge security enterprise has taken on a life of its own. Premises, purposes and alternatives remain unexamined -- as if Truth itself is embedded in our every act and only unbelievers or the stray heretic questions it. Without questions, there are no answers. Without both there is no basis for public judgment to be passed and, ultimately, for accountability. And certainly no scaling down of the national riches spent in the quest for absolute security.

* Let's recognize that Robert Gates has been a visceral hawk throughout his career -- someone who habitually saw grave threats lurking behind every event and an advocate of the hard line. This is a man who in January 1991 (after the fall of the Wall and acceptance of a unified Germany into NATO) declared to NSC colleagues that Mikhail Gorbachev had shown his true colors as a dyed in the wool Bolshie (because of Lithuania). He is so quoted in the book of Condeleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow. Ms Rice, according to her own testimony, nodded agreement with the revised appraisal.