Defense Sec'y Robert Gates Repudiates The Truman Doctrine

At a Nato meeting in Brussels on Friday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, in effect, that the Truman Doctrine that’s guided American foreign policy since it was formulated by President Harry Truman in 1947 has ended.

President Harry Truman, March 12, 1947, speaking to CongressPresident Harry Truman, March 12, 1947, speaking to Congress

Gates’ statement was prompted by the disastrous performance of Nato in the Libyan campaign, which was originally promised to take “weeks, not months.”

Robert Gates’ speech was a withering criticism of European conduct in the Libyan war, and European preparedness in general:

“Though we can take pride in what has been accomplished and sustained in Afghanistan, the ISAF mission has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities, and in political will. Despite more than 2 million troops in uniform – NOT counting the U.S. military – NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25- to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more.

Turning to the NATO operation over Libya, it has become painfully clear that similar shortcomings – in capability and will -have the potential to jeopardize the alliance’s ability to conduct an integrated, effective and sustained air-sea campaign. …

[W]hile every alliance member voted for Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there. …

We have the spectacle of an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

One television commentator said that Britain now has fewer planes in its inventory than it had before World War I.

This kind of description reminds me of how unprepared the U.S. was for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The people at that time were almost 100% oblivious to the possibility of attack, even completely ignoring radar sightings of approaching Japanese planes, because they believed that an attack was completely inconceivable. In the Philippines, American General Douglas MacArthur was informed of the Pearl Harbor attack, but still was frozen into inaction for many hours, allowing the Japanese to conduct a devastating attack there as well.

After WW II ended, the public mood was completely different, and wanted to prevent any recurrence. The United States effectively became “policeman of the world” when President Harry Truman announced the Truman Doctrine in a historic speech to Congress in 1947:

“We have considered how the United Nations might assist in [the Turkey / Greece] crisis. But the situation is an urgent one, requiring immediate action, and the United Nations and its related organizations are not in a position to extend help of the kind that is required. … As in the case of Greece, if Turkey is to have the assistance it needs, the United States must supply it. We are the only country able to provide that help. …

The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will. The Government of the United States has made frequent protests against coercion and intimidation in violation of the Yalta agreement in Poland, Rumania, and Bulgaria. I must also state that in a number of other countries there have been similar developments. …

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes. …

This is a serious course upon which we embark. I would not recommend it except that the alternative is much more serious. The United States contributed $341,000,000,000 toward winning World War II. This is an investment in world freedom and world peace. The assistance that I am recommending for Greece and Turkey amounts to little more than 1 tenth of 1 percent of this investment. It is only common sense that we should safeguard this investment and make sure that it was not in vain. The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want. They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died.

We must keep that hope alive.

The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world. And we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”

President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, echoed the Truman Doctrine:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge — and more.”

‘Pay any price, bear any burden’

Kennedy’s words were, in turn, echoed by Secretary Gates in his Friday speech:


Robert Gates, speaking to Nato on Friday (AP)
Robert Gates, speaking to Nato on Friday (AP)

“In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: Between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”

Gates is specifically repudiating Truman’s and Kennedy’s words. It’s no longer acceptable for America to be the only country willing to “pay the price and bear the burdens” that the former presidents talked about. Europe will have to do the same.

Gates said that the situation has worsened every year:

“Part of this predicament stems from a lack of will, much of it from a lack of resources in an era of austerity. For all but a handful of allies, defense budgets – in absolute terms, as a share of economic output – have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time, with the shortfalls compounding on themselves each year.”

At its core, Gates is making a generational argument. The generations of World War II survivors were willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” to make sure that nothing so horrible could happen again, but the generations growing up after the war do not feel the same way:

“With respect to Europe, for the better part of six decades there has been relatively little doubt or debate in the United States about the value and necessity of the transatlantic alliance. The benefits of a Europe whole, prosperous and free after being twice devastated by wars requiring American intervention was self evident. Thus, for most of the Cold War U.S. governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home.

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”

The Obama Doctrine

This raises the following question: What is President Barack Obama’s policy? On March 28 of this year, Obama gave a speech about Libya, in which he described what’s being called “The Obama Doctrine,” and some in the administration have referred to it as “leading from behind”:

“It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action. …

Of course, there is no question that Libya — and the world — would be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

The task that I assigned our forces — to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone — carries with it a U.N. mandate and international support. It’s also what the Libyan opposition asked us to do. If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.

To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”

It’s almost embarrassing to read these words today, almost three months later, and we can see the reason for Robert Gates’ gloomy assessment on Friday. He was ridiculing Nato’s catastrophic weakness. But in my opinion, he was also warning the world that that the generations growing up after World War II, as represented by the young, naïve, Gen-X President Barack Obama, don’t know what’s going on, and cannot be counted on to do what the WW II survivors COULD and DID do: follow the policy doctrine that they passionately announced only a few weeks earlier.

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