Duty Calls

Robert Gates's memoir of his time as secretary of defense teems with frustration at the dysfunction and petty politics of the U.S. government, and especially of the Congress and the ravenous politicization of national security policy by Barack Obama's administration. The blandness of the White House's reaction ("the President deeply appreciates Bob Gates' service as Secretary of Defense, and his lifetime of service to our country") and the vituperativeness of the president's defenders show how damaging a chord the former defense secretary's criticism has struck.

But there's actually not much in the book that wasn't known to attentive newspaper audiences. That the president was ambivalent about his Afghanistan strategy was clear from the back-to-back Afghanistan reviews in 2009, the unwillingness to give commanders the surge troop strength they requested (30,000 was a compromise White House number), and the arbitrary and unreasonable timeline the president set for achieving his objectives. That Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were shamelessly willing to politicize national security issues was clear at least from the time of the Senate hearings on the Iraq surge, when they both called David Petraeus's honesty into question. That this White House is more maniacally controlling than any since Richard Nixon's is, again, well-trod ground.

What is getting attention is less what is said than who said it. Gates is revered in the U.S. military for steadying the ship after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and for being unflinchingly serious about the undertaking -- forcing the procurement system to work to quickly address war needs, being honest about mistakes, ensuring military leaders were competent and focused, relieving people (civilian and military) who were not. So his criticism will cut deeply.

One of the most damaging revelations, one indicative of the poisonous civil-military atmosphere in the Obama administration, is the Situation Room meeting on Afghanistan in which the president obliquely accused the military of "gaming" him -- leaking its recommendations to the media in order to (as White House leakers of the time said in the press) "box the president in." Gates's reaction is that the president's behavior was "inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus. As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

The moment is illustrative of this White House and this president's arrogance, putting his defense team in its place and proving Gates's point about the civil-military friction in the Obama administration. But it is also illustrative that Gates took offense without challenging the president's assertion. It needn't have been angry or confrontational; he could simply have said, "Boss, I think that's unfair. We're all trying to come up with a policy that will win the war on terms you're comfortable with." That might have taken the sting out of the insult and modeled the kind of behavior he clearly believed should have been the norm but that this president and his closest advisors were not exhibiting.

Gates also didn't provide the president with options that met what he believed were the president's real objectives. If the president didn't trust his commander, why didn't Gates remove the commander and replace him with one the president had greater confidence in? If the president couldn't stand Karzai, why did the Pentagon persist in advocating a strategy that hinged fundamentally on Karzai's cooperation and success? If the president didn't believe in his own strategy, why didn't the secretary of defense quietly organize an effort to explore alternative strategies to achieve the president's aims? If the president didn't consider the war his, why didn't the secretary of defense address that privately with him and explain the damaging consequences of sending young Americans in harm's way under those circumstances? If the war was all about ending the war, why didn't the secretary of defense develop courses of action to achieve that objective sooner, cheaper, and with fewer lives at stake? 

Whether Gates served the Department of Defense or the country well by giving the president a pass on behavior that alienated the military from its civilian leadership is an important question, one deserving of careful thought about alternative courses of action and how they might have affected policy going forward. Gates persisted in supporting approaches inconsistent with what he believed to be the president's strong preferences. Was he right to support the compromise surge of troops under those circumstances? Should he have defended his department more assertively?

The crass politicization of the wars by the Obama administration is likely to make the military even more wary of the country's political leadership. That's worrisome, but not necessarily a bad thing. Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, memorably said in 2000 (after much fuss about the demise of civil-military relations in Bill Clinton's administration) that it was important for George W. Bush to be elected so that the military could learn to dislike Republicans again. The military has been at that point with the Obama administration since at least the 2009 Afghanistan review, which it considered a bad-faith process by the White House. But Gates's memoir may discredit among the military those military leaders who have defended the president's choices.

Gates's memoir will probably also reinforce the already prevalent belief that domestic politics are all this president really cares about, thereby reinforcing the public hesitance to be actively engaged in shaping the international order. This White House acts like public attitudes are the law of gravity instead of amenable to presidential leadership. Because the White House won't burn any political capital for national security gains, the public is properly hesitant to support any involvement -- they're more conscientious than this White House about putting young Americans in harm's way if it isn't important enough to win the war. And maybe that's not a terrible outcome, either, since if the president isn't willing to think strategically about how to achieve his national security objectives, isn't willing to make the case for his own policies, and doesn't believe in his own strategy for the war in Afghanistan or his proposed war in Syria, the country is probably better served by not fighting them. The world will become more dangerous for U.S. interests, but it is more morally defensible than the halfhearted Lyndon-Johnson-With-Vietnam acquiescence with which Obama has approached his wars as commander in chief.

Gates is unquestionably the finest secretary of defense the country has had in a very long time -- possibly the best ever. His bitter memoir shows how significant a toll it took on him caring so much for the people he commanded and the responsibilities he bore for his country -- we ought all to be grateful to him. One fitting way to honor him would be for the rest of us to think seriously about the dilemmas and failures he raises -- including his own -- and how to improve on the government's ability to develop and carry out sensible national security policies.


Shadow Government

The Strategic Implications of Japan's Resurgence

For the past year, the Western news cycle around Japan has focused on two themes: (1) "Abenomics," or the attempt to revive Japanese economic growth through monetary stimulus, currency depreciation, and structural reform, and (2) China's growing contestation of Japan's control over the Senkaku Islands, including at sea and more recently through Beijing's unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone. In the economic domain, if one looks at all of Asia, more attention remains focused on China's economic reform program and expectations of continued high growth in the 7 to 8 percent range, alongside skepticism that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can return a mature Japanese economy to sustained growth. On security, there is an expectation that a "declining" Japan's claim to the Senkakus will be increasingly difficult to defend against pressure from a rising China -- and that Japan's claim is a liability for America, which does not want to be drawn into war over a set of uninhabited islands.

But the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Japan's strategic and economic resurgence is a game-changer for the Pacific century. It will not be possible for China to enjoy dominion over Asia as long as its claim to leadership is challenged by an offshore power of Japan's weight -- in the same way that aspiring hegemons like Napoleon and Hitler found that they could not control Europe as long as Great Britain opposed them and formed the core of a balancing coalition.

In our time, the British comparison actually understates Japanese strength. Today, Japan's economy is more than twice the size of Britain's, and its navy is four times larger. Indeed, there is no vast imbalance of power between China and Japan, as international relations professor Robert Kelly wrote last month in the Japanese edition of Newsweek. China's economy only recently surpassed Japan's in size, but China has decades to go to even begin approaching Japan's technological sophistication and high standard of living. Despite their "self-defense" label, the Japanese armed forces are similarly qualitatively superior to their Chinese counterparts, and they are far more skilled in joint operations and crisis management as a result of Japan's military integration with U.S. forces. Moreover, Japan is only a political decision away from a nuclear arsenal that could easily match China's.

Unlike China, Japan enjoys close security ties and military partnerships with some of the Asia-Pacific's most capable powers. These include the United States, of course, but also India and Australia. When these four countries conducted joint military exercises in 2007, Chinese analysts correctly identified the grouping as one that could stymie China's "natural" leadership of Asia. For all the unfortunate tension in relations between Tokyo and Seoul over history issues, the Japanese and South Korean armed forces continue to conduct joint military exercises and pursue other forms of quiet security cooperation. By contrast, China's alliances with North Korea and Pakistan may have their uses, but they do not amplify Chinese security.

On security, Japan is not adrift but is rapidly transforming its ability to project power. The Abe administration is pursuing constitutional reinterpretation to loosen the restrictions on Japan's armed forces. It has created a National Security Council to centralize decision-making and recently rammed through the Diet a new secrecy law to enable closer intelligence cooperation and better contingency planning with the United States and other powers. A basing agreement on Okinawa has removed a thorn in the side of Japan-U.S. relations, while Japan continues to transform its own force posture by realigning its forces to the south (facing China) from the north (facing Russia).

Japan has lifted its ban on military exports, once an untouchable pillar of its post-1945 pacifist regime, and is providing arms and military assistance to Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia. Tokyo is forging a far-reaching strategic partnership with New Delhi, a democratic axis that could redraw the strategic map of Asia. In short, China's bullying of Japanese patrol vessels and aircraft in Japanese waters and airspace has given Abe the cover to move Japan decisively closer to becoming a "normal" great power that is able to defend itself, assertively project power and influence in Asia, and diversify its strategic options by building military alliances with countries beyond the United States.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, as a Financial Times columnist put it, "China is in for a run for its money" as Japan returns to its role as an engine of the wider Asian economy. In 2014, the developed economies of the United States, Japan, and Europe will make a greater contribution to global growth than will China and the other emerging economies -- for the first time since the global financial crisis. Japan is at the core of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that, if concluded, will provide a powerful jolt to its reform and growth prospects as one of the biggest global trade deals ever concluded.

By contrast, China's recently concluded Third Plenum makes clear that President Xi Jinping understands a Chinese economic model premised on low-value-added exports, cheap labor, repressed saving, and politically directed bank loans to unprofitable state-owned enterprises is not sustainable. China's growth rates have already slowed by some 30 percent to settle in the 7 percent range, with financial markets flashing warning signs over the probability of a bumpy landing -- with all its social and political implications.

Both Japan and China face demographic cliffs that are shrinking their working-age populations and limiting their long-term economic trajectories. Japan, with its homogeneous society and a more politically stable and vastly wealthier economy on a per capita basis, looks far better equipped to handle these pressures than a China still only at the cusp of middle-income status and lacking a welfare state.

Rather than China rising forever while Japan relegates itself to genteel decline, the competition for leadership in Asia is alive and intensifying. India is also staking its claim and will not leave the balancing of Chinese power and influence to Japan alone. Regional powers like Indonesia and Vietnam do not want to return to a Sinocentric past and will support the efforts of the great powers to maintain pluralism in their region. And America will continue a pivot to Asia that began over a century before President Barack Obama took credit for it. In short, China's leaders should not assume that they own the future, and American leaders should more forthrightly support their Japanese ally's attempts to restore its geopolitical and economic competitiveness.

Photo: AZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images