Sunday, May 03, 2009

A lesson in humility from Robert Gates

A month ago, commenting on the G-20 meeting, the FT's Philip Stephens credited Obama with recognizing that "to understand the extent of US power – and it is still unrivalled – a president must also map its limits."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates elaborated that principle as the core strategy of U.S. foreign policy in a long interview with CNN last week.

He began with a primer on the power of apology and self-correction:
Q You've heard a lot of Republican criticism that he's going around the world apologizing about America. Do you accept that?

SEC. GATES: Well, I like to remind people that when President George W. Bush came into office, he talked about a more humble America. And, you know, you go back to Theodore Roosevelt and his line about speaking softly but carrying a big stick. I think that acknowledging that we have made mistakes is not only factually accurate - I think that it is unusual because so few other governments in the world are willing to admit that, although they make them all the time, and some of them make catastrophic mistakes.

And in speeches myself, I have said that at times we have acted too arrogantly. And I didn't feel that I was being apologetic for America. I just was saying because - I was just saying that that's the way we are in terms of being willing to recognize our own limitations, and when we make a mistake, to correct it, because I think the next line that I always use is, no other country in the world is so self-critical and is so willing to change course when we feel that we've strayed from our values or when we feel like we've been too arrogant.

So I think - I have not seen it as an apology tour at all, but rather a change of tone, a more humble America. But everybody knows we still have the big stick.
Gates proceeded to model this humility when discussion turned to Pakistan. He not only refused to patronize or denigrate Pakistani efforts against the Taliban but equated their failures with American failures in counter-terror and counterinsurgency over the past sixteen years:
Q But you do think that the [Pakistani] leadership gets it? Because I look at what's happened, Mr. Secretary. They have these Taliban forces, insurgency, 60 miles from the capital, 100 miles from the capital. And what they've done so far is move 6,000 troops from the eastern border to the western border out of an army of about a half-million.

This does not strike one as a full-throated response at every level that mobilizes the nation and its defense forces. Do you think that there is still a way to go for the Pakistani military in terms of focusing on this threat?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think what you have to do is look at it in some historical context. For 60 years Pakistan has regarded India as its existential threat, as the main enemy. And its forces are trained to deal with that threat. That's where it has the bulk of its army and the bulk of its military capability.

And historically, the far western part of Pakistan has generally been ungoverned. And the Pakistani governments going back decades would do deals with the tribes and the Pashtuns and would play the tribes against one another, and occasionally, when necessary, use the army to put down a serious challenge.

I think that - and partly it's because the Punjabis so outnumber the Pashtuns that they've always felt that if it really got serious, it was a problem they could take care of. I think the - that's why I think the movement of the Taliban so close to Islamabad was a real wake-up call for them.

Now, how long it takes them to build the capabilities, the additional military capabilities and the training that goes into counterinsurgency and so on and to develop the civilian programs that begins to push back in that part of the country, I think, is still a period ahead of us.

But I would just remind that, you know, the first al Qaeda attack on the United States was in 1993. We really didn't change much of anything we did until after we were hit on September 11th, 2001. So al Qaeda was at war with us for eight years, at least eight years, before we acknowledged that we were at war with them as well. And I think a little bit of the same denial has been going on in Pakistan. But I think that the recent developments have certainly got their attention.

Q Do you think they have the counterinsurgency capacity? Because at some level armies don't like to fight these kind of wars, as you well know. What armies like to do is have a big enemy so they can have a big budget and never have to fight a war. And that is, in effect, what has happened with Pakistan with India, which is they have this big enemy. It justifies a very large budget for the Pakistani military. But they don't actually have to fight, whereas this one, the insurgency, is one which they have to fight. They could lose. And so they worry, I think, that they even have the capacity. Do they have the capacity for real counterinsurgency?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that they are at the beginning of the process of developing that capacity. But again, to provide some perspective, in 2003, when we went into Iraq, or even in 2001 and '02, when we went into Afghanistan, our Army didn't have that capacity either. We had forgotten everything we learned about counterinsurgency in Vietnam. And it took us several years to change our tactics and to get ourselves into a position where we could effectively fight a counterinsurgency.

So institutions are slow to change even in the face of a real threat. And I think that the Pakistanis are beginning to open up to others, to get additional help. I certainly hope that's the case. But I don't - it's not something where I would sort of blame the Pakistani army, because we went through the same process ourselves as we confronted a building insurgency in Iraq.

We had to learn all over again how to do this, and we had to acquire the equipment to do it effectively, completely outside the normal Pentagon bureaucracy, for the most part. So perhaps I have a little more understanding of the challenges that our Pakistani counterparts face than perhaps others.
Finally there was this discussion of the limits of our capabilities in Afghanistan -- and how to leverage the power that we do have:
Q You once said that the chief lesson you learned from 40 years in government was the limits of power. So apply that lesson to Afghanistan today. What do you think of - what are the limits to what America can do in Afghanistan?

SEC. GATES: Well, I have been quoted as accurately as saying I have real reservations about significant further commitments of American military - of the American military to Afghanistan, beyond what the president has already approved. The Soviets were in there with 110,000, 120,000 troops. They didn't care about civilian casualties. And they couldn't win. If there's ever an example that military power alone cannot be successful in Afghanistan, I think it was the Soviet experience. And I think there's a lot we can learn from that. And so I worry - it is
absolutely critical that the Afghans believe that this is their war. It is their war against people who are trying to overthrow their government that they democratically elected.

For all of its flaws and shortcomings, it is theirs. And they - we must be their partner and their ally. If we get to the point where the Afghan people see us as occupiers, then we will have lost. So the way we treat the Afghans, the importance of keeping the Afghans in the lead in many of these activities, the military as well as the civilian, I think is absolutely critical, so that they know - so that these villagers know that it's their people who are leading this fight. This isn't some foreign army coming in there, like all the previous foreign armies, to just occupy them.

Q But that means that a year from now, six months from now, you are unlikely to approve a request for additional troops in Afghanistan.

SEC. GATES: I would be a hard sell; there's no question about it. And I have not made a secret of that, either publicly or in government meetings. I think we will have - between the American military commitment and our coalition partners, the ISAF partners, we will have about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That's only about 10,000 shy of what the Russians had. And I think we need to think about that.

My view is it would be a far better investment to focus on building the strength of the Afghan army and the Afghan police, making sure that of the numbers of people we have there, there are adequate trainers so that we can accelerate the growth of those forces.

It's that combination of a certain level of international support for the Afghan military effort and the growing of the Afghan security forces themselves. It's that partnership that I think eventually will be successful in Afghanistan. As long as - if we try to do it all ourselves, I think it won't work.
If we try to do it all ourselves, I think it won't work. What was that, up top, about the U.S. learning from its mistakes?

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