Monday, April 21, 2008

Gates: "Conflict will be fundamentally political"

In a speech at the Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' main theme was the immense difficulty in a large organization of overcoming bureaucratic inertia to effect change that adapts the organization's capabilities to a changing world. And he explained why the hard task of effecting major change is needed - now and always. Unlike Bush, Gates does nuance -- his strategic vision is both detailed and sweeping, embracing a complex and interlocking set of mandates. Here is the core of that vision:

An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers. That is because this era's range of security challenges, from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts, from rogue nations to rising powers, cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone. Conflict will be fundamentally political in nature and will require the integration of all elements of national power. Success, to a large extent, will depend less on imposing one's will on the enemy or putting bombs on targets, though we must never lose our ability or our will to unsheathe the sword when necessary. Instead, ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others, friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.

This new set of realities and requirements have meant a wrenching set of changes for our military establishment that until recently was almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles and the big wars. Based on my experience at CIA, at Texas A&M and now the Department of Defense, it is clear to me that the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change, and the really tough part is preserving those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission.
Gates keeps a pretty low profile. In his short tenure, though, we have seen him working all the levers at his disposal to "shape the behavior of others" -- from the Europeans to the Iraqis to the Cheney cabal to the Democrats. He tacks back and forth to move forces even more intractable than large bureaucracies: elected officials. His tactics have included appealing directly to the European people to 'decouple' the mission in Afghanistan from that in Iraq -- and throw their support behind the former; stating publicly that Democratic talk of withdrawal timetables put useful pressure on the Iraqi government; inducing Democrats to acknowledge the need to leave some troops in Iraq by himself acknowledging the need to draw down troops; and first pushing to have the NIE on Iran released, then more recently stating matter-of-factly that Iran is "hell-bent" on getting nuclear weapon while warning that going to war with Iran would be disastrous . His public statements are often deliberately provocative to a target audience, but always in the most calculated and measured way. The man is a national treasure, plain and simple.

Related posts:
On the same page: Gates, Mullen, Powell, Obama
Can Gates Steer the Surge?

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