No matter who wins, Defense Secretary Robert Gates should stay
No matter who is elected president on Tuesday, Barack Obama or John McCain, he should seriously consider retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a frontline member of his Cabinet.
As I’ve written, Gates recognizes that there will be no military victory in Iraq despite the success of the recent troop surge. He knows that the Iraq War cannot be won until and unless there is real political reconciliation in that war-torn country. And that will be difficult to come by, given centuries-old hatreds and resentments between the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds. In order to bring about political reconciliation, Gates has called for an American diplomatic surge in Iraq accompanied by an increase in State Department staffing and funding.
In my opinion, Gates has been a more effective advocate for diplomacy than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And that’s a main reason I think our next president should retain him as Defense Secretary. National security experts Nancy Soderberg and Brian Katulis made the case for Gates in the Washington Post last week when they wrote that “the ideal Pentagon boss is already on the job … It’s a little head-spinning to see senior Democrats lauding a Bush Cabinet officer in the heat of the campaign … but many of Gates’ pragmatic policies at the Pentagon are things that Sen. Obama agrees with.”
So Gates is the right person for the job at a time when we’re fighting costly simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Soderberg and Katulis, Bush’s Defense Secretary “has been instrumental in launching a sweeping revolution in U.S. national security policy” by arguing for beefed-up U.S. diplomatic and development capabilities. “Over the long term,” Gates has said, “we cannot kill or capture our way to victory.”
I have long been concerned about the increasing militarization of U.S. foreign policy under President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. For example, shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bush appointed career diplomat Jerry Bremer as chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority but ordered him to report to Rumsfeld rather than to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who understood the political situation in Iraq far better than Bush or any of his neo-conservative advisers.
Another Washington Post writer, Glenn Kessler, has noted that both Obama and McCain seem to understand the importance of diplomacy in a dangerous world. Kessler quoted from an article that McCain wrote for Foreign Affairs magazine: “We must be willing to listen to our democratic allies,” McCain posited. “Being a great power doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want whenever we want …” So true.
And for his part, Obama has promised to work with other countries and the United Nations in an effort to reduce international tensions and misunderstandings. That’s fine as long as he understands that vital U.S. national interests come first and that it would be a big mistake to engage in face-to-face conversations with America’s enemies without preconditions.
National Security and Public Diplomacy
Speculation is already underway as to the next president’s national security team. If Obama wins, as expected, his running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, will be deeply involved with foreign affairs and national security issues. If Obama doesn’t reappoint Gates to the Pentagon, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn will be a front-runner for that job. My choice for Obama’s Secretary of State would be New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Also, given his endorsement of Obama, I think Colin Powell should play a role on the Illinois senator’s national security team.
If Sen. McCain pulls an upset on Tuesday, he’ll undoubtedly look outside the Bush administration for top officials. I’m sure he’d consider Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an “independent Democrat,” for Defense Secretary or Secretary of State. Another well qualified candidate for State is Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), ex-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
One foreign policy tool that needs immediate attention is public diplomacy, consisting of overseas information and cultural programs ” “soft power,” if you prefer ” designed to gain support and understanding for the United States and its policies. As I’ve written many times, our PR is only as good (or as bad) as our policies and President Bush’s war of choice in Iraq is a tough sell abroad. No amount of diplomatic double-talk will transform that particular sow’s ear into a silk purse.
The Clinton administration committed an egregious error in 1999 by merging the old U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which specialized in public diplomacy, with the sprawling and highly bureaucratic State Department. The culprits in that ill-advised merger were the late Jesse Helms, a right-wing senator from North Carolina, and ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, an Obama foreign policy adviser ” not a good omen for those of us who care about public diplomacy.
And now the U.S. image is at an all-time low around the world, thanks to Clinton, Helms, Ms. Albright and President Bush’s go-it-alone foreign policies. Of course, most foreigners support Obama for president, but they have unrealistic expectations. I believe that if Obama wins on Tuesday he’ll put American interests first by adopting a middle-of-the-road foreign policy with equal amounts of carrots and sticks. I can hardly wait.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was a U.S. Foreign Service officer from 1967 until his retirement in 1995.