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Gates: U.S. can't shirk global responsibility

As much as Americans might want to just take the national baseball and go home, save money and keep a low profile, the U.S. remains "the indispensable nation," and it must continue to engage with and lead the rest of the world, Secretary Gates told Notre Dame graduates on Sunday. Although he acknowledged the U.S. must get its economy back in gear, which will necessarily involve compromises in its ability to project power around the world, it can't abandon its commitments with deep, indiscriminate budget cuts, Gates said:

Going forward, we must be clear-eyed about the fact that there are no painless answers. As we make the tough choices needed to put this country’s finances in order and to secure our future prosperity – including the sacrifices that will be required of all Americans – there will undoubtedly be calls to shrink America’s role in the world – for us to sharply reduce our international commitments and the size and capabilities of our military.  I would like to address these calls, in this place and at this time.

A recurring theme in America for nearly a century has been a tendency to conclude after each war that the fundamental nature of man and the iron realities of nations have changed.  That history in all of its unpredictable and tragic dimensions has come to a civilized end.  That we will no longer have to confront foreign enemies with size, steel, and strength.  Another tendency, repeated over the last century, has been for Americans repeatedly to avert our eyes in the belief that remote events elsewhere in the world need not engage this country – from the assassination of an Austrian archduke in unknown Bosnia–Herzegovina in 1914 to the rise of a group called the Taliban in Afghanistan and their alliance with an organization called Al Qaeda in the 1990s.  The lessons of history tell us we must not diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon, because ultimately they will need to be confronted.

If history – and religion – teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world, people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their greed for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women.  More than any other Secretary of Defense, I have been a strong advocate of soft power – of the critical importance of diplomacy and development as fundamental components of our foreign policy and national security.  But make no mistake, the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is hard power –the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military.

Beyond the current wars, our military credibility, commitment, and presence are required to sustain alliances, to protect trade routes and energy supplies, and to deter would-be adversaries from making the kind of miscalculations that so often lead to war.

All of these things happen mostly out of sight and out of mind to the average American, and thus are taken for granted. But they all depend on a properly armed, trained and funded American military, which cannot be taken for granted.

Gates' caution about American obliviousness dovetails with two recent realities inside and outside the U.S.: First is his and Admiral Mullen's warning that Americans today don't really get the military, that DoD has done such a good job isolating the all-volunteer force from the civilian population that most people don't fully grasp the sacrifices and struggles that service members and their families have endured.

Second is the austerity program in the UK, which came about in part because Britons are much more skeptical than Americans about the need for a strong military. One British phrase coined for the Royal Navy -- but which applies to all the armed services -- was "sea blindness:" Your average Nigel, just going about his normal life driving on the wrong side of the road and saying "flat" and "lorry," may not have realized what he was giving up in agreeing to deep cuts to the British Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. When British leaders wanted an aircraft carrier like the HMS Ark Royal for operations in Libya, they had none to send.

Gates didn't say so explicitly, but he and Mullen clearly fear a combination of indifference and ignorance about the military and the role they believe it must continue to play even in Austerity America.

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