Here’s a free piece of advice to President Barack Obama or President John McCain: There’s no need to look for a new secretary of defense. You already have the best man in the job.
The Obama campaign in particular seems to have noticed the virtues of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. It’s a little head-spinning to see senior Democrats lauding a Bush cabinet officer in the heat of the campaign, but earlier this month, Richard Danzig, the former Navy secretary who has become one of Obama’s closest national security aides, said that many of Gates’s pragmatic policies at the Pentagon “are things that Senator Obama agrees with and I agree with.” Danzig added that Gates could do “even better” if he stayed on the job in an Obama administration.
The case for Gates goes beyond the obvious question of assisting the next president in handling Iraq, which Gates has helped haul back from the brink of total collapse. But he has also been instrumental in launching a sweeping revolution in U.S. national security.
Gates has found space to do so since, with the exception of Vice President Cheney, the hard-liners who populated the first Bush term are now gone. Instead of outspoken ideologues such as Douglas Feith and John Bolton, we now have competent functionaries such as National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who played cheerleader to the addled muscle-flexing policies of the first term, has surrounded herself with career diplomats and is actually listening to them. The administration that didn’t do nation-building and wouldn’t talk to the “axis of evil” is doing both.
The most important change, however, is that the administration has finally hit on a long-term way to make the United States secure: by promoting prosperity abroad. This doesn’t sound like Pentagon business, but Gates has shown a surprising willingness to think creatively. He doesn’t get the attention that his abrasive predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, did, but Gates has put forward a national security policy vision that will be far more lasting — and successful.
In several speeches that haven’t received the attention they deserve, Gates has argued that, as he put it on Sept. 29 at the National Defense University, “direct military force will continue to have a role” in the “prolonged, world-wide irregular campaign” against al-Qaeda and other violent extremists. But here’s the important part: Gates understands “that over the long term, we cannot kill or capture our way to victory.”
Instead, he calls for beefed up U.S. diplomatic and development capabilities. Unlike Cheney and Rumsfeld, who were obsessed with potential great-power competitors such as China, Gates bluntly admits that the “most likely catastrophic threats to our homeland — for example, an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack — are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states.” His solution to failing states? Help patch them up. Shortly after he took office, Gates argued that the lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan is that “economic development, . . . good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more — these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success.”
Another sign of this revolution came last week with the release of a new Army field manual whose sections on conflict-ridden, fragile states give similar weight to both nation-building and major combat operations. In other words, Gates sees reconstruction and economic development as central parts of the Pentagon’s push to make the United States safer from the threats that can lurk inside weak and failing states such as Afghanistan.
He has been quietly putting this approach into action. In a little-noticed move last summer, the Pentagon sent the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, on a humanitarian mission to six countries in Latin America. Instead of rushing Marines into battle, the Kearsarge carried more than 500 humanitarian workers, doctors and development experts — all with the mission, in the words of the ship’s commander, of “influencing generations to come.” When Hurricane Ike slammed into Haiti in September, the Kearsarge steamed toward the desperate island nation, bearing helicopters and boats to help stem the humanitarian crisis.
The Kearsarge mission shrewdly sought to build on perhaps the best foreign policy moments of Bush’s two terms in office: the responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. In both cases, the United States used its might to address a pressing humanitarian crisis — and in doing so, built up much-needed trust.
In a world in which the United States has endured double-digit declines in its popularity since 2002, such efforts can restore U.S. credibility — the key missing ingredient for winning the war on terror. This new approach, with its focus on building a more prosperous, less menacing world, works: It delivers tangible results, makes our friends abroad more stable and offers a far more reliable path to keeping the United States safe. It also happens to represent a revolutionary shift in Bush administration thinking about security. And it is being driven by military and Foreign Service officers with no ideological agendas — including Adm. Michael Mullen, Gen. David H. Petraeus and State Department officials Christopher Hill, William Burns and C. David Welch.
The professionals understand that any deal that might persuade North Korea or Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions must also help those regimes feed their people and feel more secure. They understand that the United States should not have clung to the corrupt regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan that denied the public the right to choose its own leaders. And they understand that if we want the world to help us fight nuclear proliferation and terrorism, we have to be seen as helping the rest of the world’s citizens with their own challenges.
The gap between these two approaches — between the professionals and the ideologues — is perhaps starkest on Iraq. Our generals know that the secret of the “surge” wasn’t simply putting more U.S. troops on the ground as our coalition partners withdrew. The secret was implementing a new set of tactics, largely drawn from the counterinsurgency manual developed by Petraeus, that focused on the Iraqi people’s basic needs.
Petraeus’s strategy was honed during his earlier service in Haiti and Bosnia, but his most formative assignment was his 2003 stint as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Iraq. There, he recognized that security depended not only on killing insurgents but also on making sure that the people of Mosul had a chance to improve their quality of life. Petraeus kept asking, “Is life better than it was under Saddam Hussein?” He made great strides in improving the security situation by bettering Iraqis’ lives with quick, high-impact construction projects, by employing Iraqis rather than foreign contractors to help build their own country and even jump-starting trade between northern Iraq and Syria.
It’s this sort of broad-mindedness that we need — and that Gates values. Petraeus is Gates’s kind of leader; the Pentagon chief likes to quote Gen. George Marshall’s description of Dwight D. Eisenhower as the “almost perfect model of a modern commander: part soldier, part diplomat, part administrator.” Gates understands that all three aspects are crucial, that for all our core national security problems — finishing the jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan, stabilizing Pakistan, defeating al-Qaeda, confronting a resurgent Russia and advancing the Middle East peace process — the secret to success will be improving the basic security of people in the area and giving them more comfortable, hopeful lives. If McCain and Obama understand this as well, they’ll ask Gates to stay put. He has served his country well, but his country isn’t done with him yet.