In politics, truth telling can be dangerous. Remember when Jimmy Carter was voted out of office, in part, for telling the American people, in a time of high inflation and unemployment, what they didn’t want to hear–that they were self indulgent and consumed too much? Remember when Larry Lindsey, a top advisor to President George W. Bush, was fired for estimating the cost of the Iraq War to be $200 billion? (At the end of fiscal year 2008, the war has cost $600 billion and the meter is running.) This seemingly good-faith estimate contrasted with the preposterous administration line that the war would cost only $50 billion and that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for war reconstruction. Remember when Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, was pushed into retirement for testifying truthfully that occupying Iraq might prove to be a daunting challenge and could require several hundred thousand U.S. combat troops?
Recently, a couple of prominent figures have told the truth, but have not risked as much as these sacrificial lambs. Israel’s outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who has resigned to fight corruption charges, said what no Israeli prime minister has ever said. He acknowledged that Israel must withdraw from nearly all the West Bank and give up East Jerusalem. Any remaining land that Israel keeps on the West Bank would have to be compensated for by giving the Palestinians some of the Israeli land. This sensible thinking is radical for an Israeli prime minister and essentially advocates throwing out long-standing Israeli defense doctrine. Olmert also pooh-poohed the idea that Israel should bomb Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program as “megalomania” and said that it was the problem of the international community.
The fact is that Olmert is now a lame duck, which leads to some valid skepticism about his new line. Why didn’t he take this courageous stand when he could actually do something about the issue? His new forthrightness on the Israeli-Palestinian problem may be a cynical attempt to be remembered as being honest about something, given the personal corruption charges that he now faces in the Israeli courts. Nevertheless, it probably helps to have an Israeli prime minister–lame duck or not–tell the truth about the situation.
Similarly, a U.S. Secretary of Defense is also speaking out. Coming after the lies his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, repeatedly told to justify propelling the United States into an invasion of Iraq and to cover up the ensuing bungling, Bob Gates’s candor is refreshing–at least at first blush. On the same day Olmert committed his honesty, while rendering the obligatory praise to the common soldier, Gates criticized the U.S. military establishment for neglecting counterinsurgency warfare at the expense of buying new generations of technological warfighting gizmos. As evidence, he noted that even with two wars going, the military had to be forced to produce systems to detect roadside bombs and field heavily armored troop transporters.
Like Olmert, Gates is nearing the end of his tenure and doesn’t have much to lose by being honest. In fact, if either the Democrat Barack Obama or the “maverick” Republican John McCain wins, he might be asked to stay on as Defense Secretary because of such straight shooting about Pentagon problems. After all, Gates has presided over the U.S. military “turning the situation around” in Iraq. But if Gates were asked to remain on board in any new administration, he would be smart to decline the offer.
While Gates’s comments were true, there is a limit to his honesty. In fact, Gates has not so much turned around the situation in Iraq, as held the lid on until Bush can safely retire from office. The Sunni Awakening militias, which the U.S. government trained, armed, and paid to stop fighting the U.S. military, will probably exacerbate the eventual civil war that is likely to occur in a socially-fractured Iraq. These Awakening forces are now being turned over to a hostile Shi’i-dominated government, which has already attempted to arrest some of the Awakening leaders and may not give them promised jobs. These disgruntled Sunni fighters could easily resume the civil war.
If Gates continued to serve in the next administration, he might very well have to deal with the effects of his own sleight of hand. Gates’s truthfulness is also limited by the fact that it was concentrated narrowly on military procurement and (the lack of counterinsurgency) doctrine. What Gates should have said was that the historical record indicates that military invasion by a foreign power rarely changes deep-rooted political, economic, social, and cultural norms in the target of the attempted “nation-building”–usually rendering such armed adventures pure folly.