Secretary Gates is often described as a pragmatist. That's not a bad thing, of course, but when it comes to the business of trying to set the U.S. on solid strategic footing for the 21st century, pragmatism can be a liability, since it won't look at the underlying issues but instead tries to manage the present situation as best it can. The key to understanding Secretary Gates' strategic thinking, I think, came in a speech he gave at the National Defense University in September 2008. Gates said:
Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more.What's missing from this litany is obvious: any engagement with the question of whether these interventions were vital for the security of the United States. Surely Secretary Gates doesn't think American security would be intolerably threatened had we not intervened in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo? Or do we really believe that the military had no other choice?
Unfortunately, rather than wrestle with these questions, it's simply taken as a given that this is what America must do as a global power and so it's off we go to China to borrow the money to pay for it all. That is, in a nutshell, what the current defense strategy promises. We will "rebalance" the force, cutting into the conventional platforms that give America true security to pay for the nation building/counter-insurgency in the mostly irrelevant litany that Gates highlighted.