August 12, 2007, Sunday
What Is This Man Thinking?
By William S. Cohen
When Robert M. Gates, one of our nation's most dedicated and competent public servants, agreed to serve as Donald Rumsfeld's successor as secretary of defense last November, he seemed to do so more out of a sense of duty than out of desire. And why not? His tenure would be short and his mission nearly impossible. As one who once had the honor of leading the Defense Department, I've tried to imagine the thoughts that might have passed through his mind during the past nine months. The following interior monologue is purely fictional and should not be attributed in whole or in part to Gates's views.
What ever possessed me to take this job? I liked being king of the Aggies at Texas A&M. Good students and faculty; first-rate campus and alumni support. I only had to answer to the trustees, and that was generally in private -- in the shadows, where I've always preferred to operate. Sure, I'm an old CIA man, and I've never failed to answer the call to duty. But doesn't duty have its limits?
I haven't even been on the job for a year yet, and everyone wants to pass judgment on how I'm doing. Didn't Zhou En-lai say, when asked back in the 1970s to assess the significance of the French Revolution, that it was still too early to tell? (Note to self: Probably not a good idea to talk too fondly of Chinese leaders, even those long departed. Don't want the Chinese to think I'll be an easy mark.)
Of course I know a lot about national security, but that doesn't make me a military expert. I need to get smart on a lot of issues, and fast. I'm still getting briefings from the Joint Chiefs, and that's like drinking from the proverbial fire hose.
I've had to rebuild trust with the military, but I think I've got the right balance now. I need to be close to them since my time here is limited, but not so close that I appear to be a captive. There'll be no yes men who are intimidated by me, nor ambitious types trying to curry favor by telling me what they think I want to hear. If I have problems with a flag officer, I'll deal with him or her personally, but I won't undermine or discredit senior officers as a group just because I don't like their advice.
We'll really need to work together, because our problems don't have quick fixes. Our forces are too thin; the Army's nearly broken and can't sustain the Iraq surge into the spring; the Navy needs more ships; and we can't afford the three new aircraft the Air Force wants.
Oh, I can handle all the traditional stuff. But I'm not sure there's enough time left to lay out a strategic, transformational vision for protecting the American people and our allies in a rapidly changing world. And even if we could put a strategy like that together, it wouldn't be easy to round up the personnel and resources to execute it after all the resources we've wasted in Iraq.
Part of the problem is that the hard feelings in Congress are worse than I thought. But I've dealt with the Hill for years, and I'm pretty sure I know how to handle them. What I mostly need to do is show them some respect and be willing to share information. They don't like big supplemental budgets any more than I do, but they won't cut back anything we need for the troops.
Same goes for our allies. Sometimes they'll be with us, and sometimes they'll be against us. But as long as we keep the channels of communication open, they'll be with us more times than not.
They still resent the fact that we didn't listen to them before we went to war in Iraq, but they know we're indispensable to their security and that we're carrying their interests on the backs of our taxpayers.
But then there's the executive branch. It's harder to get that working right. The interagency policymaking process has become dysfunctional -- way too much ego and turf protection. The State Department and Defense Department have always engaged in territorial chest-beating, but it's really gotten out of hand in the past few years. When I was at the National Security Council under the first President Bush, we didn't always agree on the specifics, but we all had the same big-picture focus. We didn't question each other's motives or just ignore directives we happened not to like.
I have a lot of respect for Condi Rice (she used to work for me under Bush 41), and I hope traveling with her to the Middle East to help launch a regional push to contain Iran sent a good signal. Diplomacy shouldn't be a punch line; it's a national security tool, and we haven't used it nearly enough recently. For example, one part of our Iran strategy has to be a big push by the president and Condi to broker some sort of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. It's a mystery to me why the president, who came out boldly for a Palestinian state in 2002, let others delay our reengagement on peace talks until now.
So I'll need to keep talking directly with President Bush. This isn't going to be easy, but he owes me. I serve at his pleasure, but I will always be sure that my actions are the right ones and not simply done to please him -- or Vice President Cheney, for that matter. That's not why I took the job.
And I've got plenty to clean up in my own shop. I'll move quickly whenever I see a dereliction of duty or a failure to measure up to the highest standards of conduct. The conditions at Walter Reed were well past unacceptable. The way we've held prisoners at Guantanamo Bay has also stained our reputation. We need to close it. I don't understand why we keep delaying that decision, or why we refuse to make it clear that we won't violate the Geneva Conventions on torture.
To set a new tone, I'll have to get past the skeptics and cynics among the Pentagon press corps. I won't play word games or dance around tough issues. My motto has been "Make no news," although I did manage to make some when I choked up talking about Maj. Douglas Zembiec, who died in Iraq in May after volunteering for a second combat tour. I hadn't planned on breaking down in public, but it was about time someone showed some emotion about the losses we've suffered without having our manhood or patriotism questioned.
Iraq overshadows everything else these days. Before coming to the Pentagon, I worked side by side with Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton on the Iraq Study Group and saw the mess we've got on our hands -- and the path we need to follow if we're ever going to get out. I didn't agree with all the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, but I still can't understand why President Bush refused to embrace the report, at least in principle. The irony is that he's been implementing most of its recommendations, including talking to Iran about Iraq, but getting no credit for it. Instead of the political consensus we could have had, we've got presidential candidates selling the public their "pick a date" departure tickets out of Iraq.
Everyone understands that we can't succeed in military terms alone. The surge and our new links with Sunni tribal leaders can work for a while in some areas, but unless Iraqi leaders are willing to make some hard political choices, our successes will amount to little more than footprints in the sand. Why wasn't more thought given to how hard all this was going to be before we went in? Some cakewalk this has turned out to be.
Meanwhile, Iran is gloating. The mullahs want us out of Iraq, but not until they bleed us dry and destroy our credibility. But they're making a big mistake if they think they're going to have a free hand in the region if and when we leave Iraq. We'll be in the neighborhood -- maybe even in their back yard.
Iran keeps claiming that all it wants is nuclear energy, but its deceits are obvious, and the pressure is mounting for us to take military action. If diplomacy fails, we may have to consider strikes, but wouldn't it be better if China and Russia helped us out? Our military options aren't enticing. Sure, we could do some real damage to Iran's underground nuclear facilities and set its program back a couple of years. But at what cost? Solidifying Muslim hatred of the United States? Unleashing Iranian-sponsored terrorism against us or our allies? Losing Iraq if Iran unleashes the Shiite militias it's been building up?
And we can't forget al-Qaeda. I need to focus on breaking down the silos that still prevent our intelligence people from connecting all the dots; on pushing the hugely expensive parts of our intelligence apparatus that report to me to play nicely with their comrades out at Langley; on getting NATO to put more troops into Afghanistan; and on pushing Pervez Musharraf to really go after the Taliban in Pakistan. Plus, I need to finish the plan for drawing down our forces in Iraq.
No wonder I didn't ask for this job. But it's mine now. If I do it right, maybe one day we'll be able to say "Mission Accomplished" -- and mean it.
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