It’s not often that a defense secretary says his department is overfunded, has the wrong strategy and is saddled with a mission ill suited to its core functions. But that’s just what Robert Gates did this week when he spoke July 15 at the U.S. Global Leadership Council.
Ever since he took over the Pentagon, Gates has tried to narrow the military’s roles and missions, particularly when it comes to foreign policy functions that were long the purview of civilian agencies. In his speech this week, he said he’s mindful of what some see as the “creeping militarization” of American foreign policy, even outside Iraq and Afghanistan. He is trying to radically reshape the military’s posture from one focused solely on direct military action to a broader set of capabilities that will “shape the security environment in ways that obviate the need for military intervention in the future.”
Gates views it unlikely that the U.S. will repeat an Afghanistan or Iraq style “nation building under fire," a sentiment I hear echoed by many officers. He sees the greatest future threat not from rising powers such as Russia and China but rather failing states that cannot address the needs of a discontented populace. He said that in too many countries he’s visited, “regard for the U.S. remains low amongst the populations,” worrisome for American security that depends on cooperation from other nations. He said the U.S. can be faulted for occasionally straying from our values and arrogance and that only over time will more positive actions build trust and credibility with other nations.
Gates says America’s civilian international affairs agencies must take a much more active role in foreign policy, but are grossly underfunded, particularly relative to DOD. The problem, he said, is diplomats don’t have the ready made political constituency on Capitol Hill that job creating major weapons programs have. He says Congress’ slashing of the President’s foreign affairs budget request has become an annual ritual. He contrasted that with another annual ritual where Congress asks the military services for more stuff they want that OSD and the White House “were too stingy to put in the budget request.”
Gates is clearly not a big fan of occupying foreign countries. To stave off potential insurgencies, he advocates working with and through other governments, with a much smaller American military footprint, a shift to where the military “is – and is clearly seen to be – in a supporting role to civilian agencies.” Gates is an advocate of what can be called the “El Salvador” school of military intervention, where during the 1980s a small team of no more than 50 special forces troops trained the El Salvadoran military to effectively fight a communist insurgency.
When it comes to the struggle against terrorist networks, Gates says “we cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” in many ways a repudiation of the Bush administration’s strategy that has aimed to do just that. It’s a statement likely to draw the ire of those on the far right of the political spectrum who contend that America is locked in an existential struggle against Islamic terrorism. Gates doesn’t even label it a “war” against terrorist networks, rather he used the word “campaign.”
His prescription for dealing with terrorists is a radical departure from the last seven years. The military’s “kinetic operations,” special ops troops and aerial drones knocking off the odd terrorist, should take a back seat to “tools of persuasion and inspiration.” Gates said U.S. efforts should promote participation in government, fund economic programs to spur development and other efforts to “address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies.” A frustrated Army officer recently returned from Iraq once asked me to go to the Pentagon and find the office of “we rebuild nations.” Clearly, Gates believes that is a role best left to diplomats and civilian aid agencies.