This passage is taken from the section of Robert Gates’s memoir titled, “On War”:
“Usually we don’t get to choose and almost never accurately predict the kind of war we will fight next. I am always amused when I hear a senior military officer or a politician declare that we will never fight certain kinds of wars again. After Vietnam, our defense “experts” avowed we would never again try to fight an insurgency, yet we have done so in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are hearing the same claim now. Those who assert we will fight only certain kinds of wars in the future forget history and the reality that our enemies, as I’ve said, always have a vote, as do future presidents. In the forty years since Vietnam, our record in predicting where we will be militarily engaged next, even six months out, is perfect: we have never once gotten it right, not in Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Libya (twice), Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, the Balkans, or Somalia. When it comes to predicting future conflicts, what kind of fights they will be, and what will be needed, we need a lot more humility.
Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of, a point I hope I have made clear. Those who ask about exit strategies or what happens if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers argue we must act militarily – as they did when advocating an invasion of Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iranian nuclear sites. The argument against military action is almost never about capabilities but whether it is wise. As Petraeus said early on in Iraq, “Tell me how this ends.” Too often the question is not even asked, much less answered.
My time as secretary of defense reinforced my belief that in recent decades, American presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, have too often been quick to reach for a gun – to use military force, despite all the realities I have been describing. They could have done worse than to follow the example of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During his presidency, the Soviet Union became a thermonuclear power, China became a nuclear power, and there were calls for preventive nuclear war against both; the Joint Chiefs unanimously recommended that he use nuclear weapons to help the French in Vietnam; there were several crises with China related to Taiwan; a war in the Middle East; a revolution in Cuba; and uprisings in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. And yet after Eisenhower agreed to the armistice in Korea in the summer of 1953, not one American soldier was killed in action during his presidency.
Too many ideologues call for the use of the American military as the first option rather than a last resort to address problems. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” as a justification for military intervention in Libya, Syria, the Sudan, and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to use military force in Libya, Syria, or Iraq is deemed an abdication of American leadership and a symptom of a “soft” foreign policy. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia was framed almost entirely in military terms as opposed to economic and political priorities. And so the rest of the world sees America, above all else, as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles, and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces.
I strongly believe America must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities. We are the “indispensable nation,” and few international problems can be addressed successfully without our leadership. But we also need to better appreciate that there are limits to what the United States – still by far the strongest and greatest nation on earth – can do in an often cruel and challenging world. The power of our military’s global reach has been an indispensable contributor to peace and stability in many regions and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis can or should elicit an American military response.” (Pg. 590, 591)
– Lucas G. Westman