Philip Zelikow: America Must Regain the Initiative Abroad

Roundup: Historians' Take

The writer is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. From 2005 to 2007 he was the counsellor of the US Department of State

The revolution in Syria is well under way. The revolution in Libya struggles on. The Middle East is alight, yet most of America’s military commitment, and the political attention associated with it, remains in Afghanistan. Every day that the US worries about events such as the escape of hundreds of painstakingly detained insurgents from an Afghan jail is a day in which America loses the power of initiative elsewhere.

Two months ago Robert Gates, defence secretary, gave a speech about the future of the US army at West Point, saying that “any future defence 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 General MacArthur so delicately put it”. Mr Gates, a principal architect of the present commitment in Afghanistan, has since complained through his spokesman that this line was “hijacked” by critics. Gen MacArthur, also a principal advocate of a large-scale war in Asia, may not have uttered the words, but it is worth reflecting on what both these men were saying about the troubles of American grand strategy....

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