The fall issue of Foreign Policy magazine features Fred Kaplan’s “The Transformer,” an article-cum-interview with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It received a flurry of attention because Gates indicated he might leave his post “sometime in 2011.” The most significant two lines in the piece, however, were so ordinary that the usual pundits thought them not worth pondering. Part of a Kaplan summary of Gates’s views, they read: “He favors substantial increases in the military budget… He opposes any slacking off in America’s global military presence.”
Now, if Kaplan had done a similar interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, such lines might have been throwaways, since a secretary of state is today little more than a fancy facilitator, ever less central to what that magazine, with its outmoded name, might still call “foreign policy.” Remind me: When was the last time you heard anyone use that phrase — part of a superannuated world in which “diplomats” and “diplomacy” were considered important — in a meaningful way? These days “foreign policy” and “global policy” are increasingly a single fused, militarized entity, at least across what used to be called “the Greater Middle East,” where what’s at stake is neither war nor peace, but that "military presence."
As a result, Gates’s message couldn’t be clearer: despite two disastrous wars and a global war on terror now considered “multigenerational” by those in the know, trillions of lost dollars, and staggering numbers of deaths (if you happen to include Iraqi and Afghan ones), the U.S. military mustn’t in any way slack off. The option of reducing the global mission — the one that’s never on the table when “all options are on the table” — should remain nowhere in sight. That’s Gates’s bedrock conviction. And when he opposes any diminution of the global mission, it matters.