NEWPORT, R.I. (April 17, 2009) – As the U.S. military winds down from Iraq and Afghanistan in the future, leaders must learn the lessons of past drawdowns, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Friday.
Gates spoke to the class and staff of the Naval War College. He said leaders must understand that as conflicts end, the United States cannot unilaterally disarm.
Gates said one of his favorite sayings from his 43 years of federal service is, “Experience is the ability to remember a mistake when you make it again.”
“And one of the things that has happened to this country repeatedly in the 20th century,” he added, “is that at the end of a conflict or a war, we unilaterally disarmed.”
The United States eviscerated the armed forces at the end of World War I and World War II, he said. At the end of the Korean and Vietnam wars, he said, military capabilities dropped again.
“And we did it at the end of the Cold War,” he said. The Army is 40 percent smaller today, he told the students, than it was when he stepped down as director of central intelligence in 1993.
“So every time we have come to the end of a conflict, somehow we have persuaded ourselves that the nature of mankind and the nature of the world has changed on an enduring basis, and so we have dismantled both our military and intelligence capabilities,” he said.
He said that as the United States draws down in Iraq and contemplates the right level of forces in Afghanistan, leaders must not make that same mistake.
“My hope … is that we not forget the basic nature of humankind has not changed, and there will always be people out there who want to try and take our liberty away or the liberty of our friends and our partners,” he said. The United States must sustain a level of investment in national security capabilities that allows the country to deal with the range of threats, the secretary added.