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War Fever Subsides in Washington

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The Gates Doctrine

No one can charge Gates with being an isolationist or a national security wimp. Neither is he a "declinist." So when he says anyone proposing another major land war in the Greater Middle East should "have his head examined" -- citing the authority of Douglas MacArthur, no less -- people take notice. Or more recently there was this: "I've got a military that's exhausted," Gates remarked, in one of those statements of the obvious too seldom heard from on high. "Let's just finish the wars we're in and keep focused on that instead of signing up for other wars of choice." Someone should etch that into the outer walls of the Pentagon's E-ring.

A half-dozen years ago, "wars of choice" were all the rage in Washington. No more. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Or consider the officer corps. There is no "military mind," but there are plenty of minds in the military and some numbers of them are changing.

Evidence suggests that the officer corps itself is rethinking the role of military power. Consider, for example, "Mr. Y," author of A National Strategic Narrative, published this spring to considerable acclaim by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. The actual authors of this report are two military professionals, one a navy captain, the other a Marine colonel.

What you won't find in this document are jingoism, braggadocio, chest-thumping, and calls for a bigger military budget. If there's an overarching theme, it's pragmatism. Rather than the United States imposing its will on the world, the authors want more attention paid to the investment needed to rebuild at home.

The world is too big and complicated for any one nation to call the shots, they insist. The effort to do so is self-defeating. "As Americans," Mr. Y writes, "we needn't seek the world's friendship or proselytize the virtues of our society. Neither do we seek to bully, intimidate, cajole, or persuade others to accept our unique values or to share our national objectives. Rather, we will let others draw their own conclusions based upon our actions" We will pursue our national interests and let others pursue theirs..."

You might dismiss this as the idiosyncratic musing of two officers who have spent too much time having their brains baked in the Iraqi or Afghan sun. I don't. What convinces me otherwise is the positive email traffic that my own musings about the misuse and abuse of American power elicit weekly from serving officers. It's no scientific sample, but the captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels I hear from broadly agree with Mr. Y. They've had a bellyful of twenty-first-century American war and are open to a real debate over how to overhaul the nation's basic approach to national security.

Intelligence Where You Least Expect It

And finally, by gum, there is the United States Congress. Just when that body appeared to have entered a permanent vegetative state, a flickering of intelligent life has made its reappearance. Perhaps more remarkably still, the signs are evident on both sides of the aisle as Democrats and Republicans alike -- albeit for different reasons -- are raising serious questions about the nation's propensity for multiple, open-ended wars.

Some members cite concerns for the Constitution and the abuse of executive power. Others worry about the price tag. With Osama bin Laden out of the picture, still others insist that it's time to rethink strategic priorities. No doubt partisan calculation or personal ambition figures alongside matters of principle. They are, after all, politicians.

Given what polls indicate is a growing public unhappiness over the Afghan War, speaking out against that war these days doesn't exactly require political courage. Still, the possibility of our legislators reasserting a role in deciding whether or not a war actually serves the national interest -- rather than simply rubberstamping appropriations and slinking away -- now presents itself. God bless the United States Congress.

Granted, the case presented here falls well short of being conclusive. To judge by his announcement of a barely-more-than-symbolic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama himself seems uncertain of where he stands. And clogging the corridors of power or the think tanks and lobbying arenas that surround them are plenty of folks still hankering to have a go at Syria or Iran.

At the first signs of self-restraint, you can always count on the likes of Senator John McCain or the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal to decry (in McCain's words) an "isolationist-withdrawal-lack-of-knowledge-of-history attitude" hell-bent on pulling up the drawbridge and having Americans turn their backs on the world. In such quarters, fever is a permanent condition and it's always 104 and rising. Yet it is a measure of just how quickly things are changing that McCain himself, once deemed a source of straight talk, now comes across as a mere crank.

In this way, nearly a decade after our most recent descent into madness, does the possibility of recovery finally beckon.

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Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.
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