"(A)ny future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it," Robert Gates has just told the cadets at West Point.
America would be nuts, Gates is saying, to fight a new land war like the two he inherited.
It follows that the "neo-isolationists" who opposed invading Iraq and a "long war" in Afghanistan were right, in Gates' eyes. Quite an admission from a defense secretary who presided over the surge in Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan.
Yet, do not the balance sheets of both wars bear Gates out?
Nearly 10 years after 9/11, at a cost of $100 billion a year, we are still bleeding in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, however, is long gone, but embedded today in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
Eight years after Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the butcher's bill is in: 4,400 U.S. dead, 37,000 wounded, 100,000 Iraqi dead, half a million widows and orphans, half of Iraq's Christian population in exile, the other half terrorized and a Shia Iraq drifting toward Tehran.
For what? Al-Qaida was not in Iraq in 2003, but it is there now.
Pushed by neoconservatives to institute a no-fly zone over Libya, Gates retorted: "Let's just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya." To sustain it would require at least two aircraft carriers. Why is Libya's civil war our problem?
Gates is now singing in tune with his country.
Yet his position implies a new foreign policy.
For if we are not going to fight another land war in Asia, what are we doing with 28,000 troops in Korea, many up on the DMZ, as Pyongyang rants about hurling a "sea of fire" against the South?
Why not withdraw the U.S. troops, let South Koreans take their place and sell Seoul the weapons to defend itself, while restricting our role, should the North attack, to air and naval support?
Why should U.S. troops fight a second Korean War, 60 years after the first and 20 years after the end of the Cold War? Was not the first Korean War the war that soured MacArthur on any future land war in Asia?
What vital interest of ours is at risk on that Asian peninsula?
The Nixon Doctrine of 1969 declared that, post-Vietnam, should any U.S. Asian ally be attacked, "we shall furnish military and economic assistance ... in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense."
Is this doctrine not relevant to today and consistent with what Gates is saying? If we are not going to fight any new land war in Asia, bring the Marines home from Okinawa, where they have been based for 65 years. Let Japan take responsibility for the island's defense.
Yet, even as Gates was speaking, Pentagon officials were talking of using Marines to evict Chinese troops, should they occupy disputed islands in the South and East China seas.
Among the claimants to the islands in the South China Sea are Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. The co-claimant to the Senkakus in the East China Sea is Japan.
Why should holding or recapturing these islands, none of which is ours and almost all of which are uninhabited, be the Marine Corps' job?
If we are not going to fight another land war in Asia, when the troops come home from Afghanistan and Iraq, let us close the U.S. bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. As the Russia-Georgia clash showed, America is not going to fight in the Caucasus, either.
As for Europe, the Red Army went home decades ago. Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics are free. As President Eisenhower urged JFK 50 year ago, we should bring U.S. troops home and let Europe man up to its own defense.
No one threatens Europe today, and we could sell them all the missiles, tanks, ships, guns and planes they need to defend themselves.
Robert Kagan writes in The Weekly Standard that before we cut defense we must decide what commitments we are going to give up.
He is correct. Instead of cutting the sinew, bone and muscle of defense, let us first terminate treaty commitments to go to war for nations that have nothing to do with U.S. vital national interests.
U.S. policy should be to tell Europe, Asia, Africa and the Mideast: Your defense is first and foremost your responsibility. You police your own neighborhood. And if there is something you can't handle, give us a call. We may be able to help. Then again, we may not.
Robert Gates may just have started a long-overdue debate.