Gates: America Has Acute War Fatigue, But Will Get Over It

By Sandra I. Erwin
Only days after being sworn in as defense secretary, Robert Gates began tackling the unpleasant task of defending the hugely unpopular Iraq War. As he prepares to leave office June 30, one of his final assignments has been, once again, to stand up for another war that is rapidly losing public support.
Gates expects history to be on his side. While Congress and the American people may now be adamantly against the Afghanistan war, they eventually come around, as they have after nearly every war that the United States has fought throughout its history.
As a historian, Gates likes to remind people that there is no such thing as a popular war. “With the exception of the first couple of years of World War II, there has never been a popular war in the United States, in our whole history,” he said June 16 at his final news conference before retiring and turning over the Pentagon to incoming Secretary Leon Panetta.
Every war has been controversial, Gates said. “In each case, it has required the leadership of the president” to keep the effort going. Woodrow Wilson had to put up a strong fight to sustain U.S. participation in World War I, as did Harry Truman during the Korean War, Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War, and George H.W. Bush in the first Persian Gulf War. “When Bush said he was going to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, that [intervention] had 15 percent public support,” Gates said. At the height of congressional opposition to the Iraq troop surge in 2007, Gates recalled he had to cancel a trip to Latin America as Republican support was crumbling. Gates had to stay in town to thwart impending congressional action to end the surge.
In each case, the political momentum to end the wars eventually slowed down. But whether Afghanistan follows the usual pattern remains to be seen. “This unhappiness, and certainly the war weariness after a decade, rest heavily on all of us, I think,” said Gates. If the U.S. military is able to complete its mission there as it has largely done in Iraq “in a way that protects America’s national security interests and contributes to stability,” the public’s dissatisfaction will subside.
“I think we’re on a path to do that in Afghanistan,” Gates said.
The fiscal environment also has led Americans to sour on the war, Gates acknowledged. Iraq and Afghanistan so far have cost U.S. taxpayers nearly a trillion and-a-half dollars, with the tab still running. “The cost of the wars is huge,” Gates said. “But it is declining,” he added. He expects that war costs will drop by $40 billion — from $160 billion to $120 billion — between fiscal years 2011 and 2012. Further reductions could be seen by 2013,
“I understand the impatience, I understand the concern, especially in hard economic times,” Gates said. “But we also have to think about the long-term security interests of the country.”
It speaks to Gates’ political skills that he has withstood antiwar fever on behalf of two presidents, a Republican and a Democrat. “One of the interesting challenges about this job has been the responsibility of waging two wars, neither of which I had anything to do with starting,” Gates said.
So, are we winning?
Gates wouldn’t go there. After four and a half years running the Pentagon, he said, “I learned to stay away from loaded words like winning and losing.” Once again exhibiting his political shrewdness, Gates said he considers U.S. Military forces' efforts in Afghanistan successful because they are carrying out precisely the orders they got from the president. “I believe we are being successful in implementing the president’s strategy. I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, reversing the momentum of the Taliban, degrading their capabilities and improving the capabilities of the Afghan security forces.” Those were the goals set by the president in December 2009, he said. “I think we are succeeding in those four areas.”

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Leadership

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