Gates Warns Against Isolationism After Afghanistan

The departing defense secretary reflects on the war in Afghanistan and future American foreign policy.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010 (DoD/Cherie Cullen)

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is due to retire two weeks from now. The only leftover from the Bush Administration in President Barack Obama’s cabinet reflected on the war in Afghanistan and the future of American armed forces in interviews with Fox News Sunday and CNN’s State of the Union.

A number of American combat forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan this summer. Asked how many troops could start coming home, Gates cautioned in an interview with ABC last week that the president’s “judgement call has to be made in a context of a wide variety of issues.”

On Fox this Sunday, Gates reiterated that his job was to present the president with various options and lay out the potential complications that come with them. He refused to mention a specific number however so Chris Wallace asked instead what he thought of the administration’s strategy. “We have had a lot of success over the last fifteen months in Afghanistan,” he said, praising the “surge” initiated by President Obama. “The conditions on the ground are far better than they were a year ago.” The president, he added, would not jeopardize the gains made by the military under his watch.

When asked if he was concerned about the growing isolationism in his own party, Gates said that he worried about politicians who see defense and American engagements around the world as a way to reduce the nation’s fiscal woes. “I believe that misstates the problem,” he said before pointing out that as a share of gross domestic product, defense spending is at its lowest since before World War II except for a brief spike in the 1990s. He urged skeptics of the war to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure?”

On CNN, Gates explained that “failure is a huge challenge for the United States” and could have “costs of its own that will linger with us for a longer time as was the case in Vietnam.” The parallel with the Vietnam War is appropriate, he told Newsweek. “That is we came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game. President Obama, I think, got the right strategy and the right resources for Afghanistan — but eight years in.”

“We abandoned Afghanistan once and we paid a very heavy price for it in the attacks of 9/11,” Republican senator John McCain said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “For us to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and radical Islamic extremists, I think would be repeating mistakes we made before.”

Interventionists like McCain seem to be in the minority among Republicans however. There is division within the party not just over the intervention in Libya but American involvement in Afghanistan as well. Centrist presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John Huntsman have both suggested to withdraw from the country altogether; something Senator McCain, himself a former presidential contender, warned against.

“I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today?” he pondered, arguing that isolationism is a stark departure from traditional conservative foreign policy. “That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people for all over the world.”

Gates agreed that “Congress is all over the place” and “the Republicans are a perfect example. I mean, you’ve got the budget hawks and then you’ve got the defense hawks within the same party. And so I think there is no consensus on a role in the world.”

“I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower,” the former intelligence director reminisced in Newsweek, “and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position. It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”

More than half of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting according to a poll recently conducted for ABC News and The Washington Post. 73 percent of respondents said that the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from the country this summer.

Gates acknowledged that the American people were tired of war on State of the Union but he stressed that “the United States had a very limited commitment in Afghanistan until well into 2008. And we didn’t have the right strategy and the right resources for this conflict and a lot of resources — those needed to do the job — until the late summer of 2010.”

“We were diverted by Iraq,” the secretary admitted, “and we basically neglected Afghanistan for several years.” The president’s responsibility, he said on Fox News Sunday, “is to look out for the long term national-security interest of the United States. He has to have a longer view.”