Lurking Defense Secretary Provides Adult Supervision and Stabilizes Obama National Security Team


gates behind scenes.jpgDefense Secretary Robert Gates, much less visible than any other personalities on the Obama national security team roster, is playing the role of “steady hand” on the President’s team.
Gates has demonstrated this by keeping his own profile down while his national security colleagues, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden in particular, chase the spotlight to a greater degree and seemingly crave visibility and credit for various moves and shifts that the Obama administration has made. The way they are playing their roles is natural.
Gates hangs back in contrast, advising, lurking — and laying the groundwork for change with Russia, China, even perhaps Iran.
Gates has momentarily come out of the shadows and made two key statements that are particularly important and show him to be a steadying influence and stabilizer on the Obama team.
First, he has pushed back against military command requests for more troops and a larger “military footprint” in Afghanistan. General David Petraeus made clear in testimony yesterday that commanders were seeking 10,000 more troops than those already requested by President Obama — but Gates is publicly expressing his discomfort with this course and thinks that the current troop levels committed and new strategy needed to be field tested before considering pouring more combat forces into the Afghanistan-Pakistan equation.
Secondly, as Demetri Sevastopulo has just written in an important Financial Times piece, Gates is pushing newly sworn in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back on Iran.
In a report by the Atlantic Monthly‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, Netanyahu bluntly stated that Israel would take care of Iran if the United States did not.
Gates, in the Sevastopulo interview, essentially knocks Netanyahu back by suggesting that he thinks we are not close to any “red line” action against Iran. Joint Chiefs of Staff Commander Michael Mullen has similarly emphasized that the Middle East is already unstable enough at the moment — and more instability would not be welcome.
Demetri Sevastopulo writes:

Robert Gates, US defence secretary, has said Israel is unlikely to attack Iran this year to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Gates said there was still enough time to persuade Iran to abandon what is widely perceived to be a nuclear weapons programme.
Mr Gates said he does not expect Israel – which believes the US estimate for when Iran could develop a nuclear weapon is too sanguine – to take military action this year.
“I guess I would say I would be surprised…if they did act this year,” said Mr Gates.
As he was sworn in as the new Israeli prime minister this week, Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the greatest danger to Israel was Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons. But asked whether Iran would cross a nuclear “red line” this year, Mr Gates said: “I don’t know, I would guess probably not”.
“I think we have more time than that. How much more time I don’t know,” said Mr Gates. “It is a year, two years, three years. It is somewhere in that window.”
Israel raised the spectre of war last year by conducting a large scale military exercise that some experts saw as a practice run for an attack on Iran. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs, later delivered an unusual public warning following a visit to Israel, saying “this is a very unstable part of the world, and I don’t need it to be more unstable”.

From what we know at this moment, Robert Gates deserves credit on a number of fronts. These include de-colonizing the intelligence bureaucracy that Donald Rumsfeld aggrandized around the Department of Defense that then undermined much of the intelligence reform that was part of establishing a new Directorate of National Intelligence.
Gates has also been an impressive lead proponent in trying to lessen — on a relative basis — the military dimensions of America’s response to international security problems and has called for far greater resources for our diplomatic efforts, aid efforts, at overall State Department resources.
Like Vice President Biden, Gates seems cautious about advocating much larger US troop deployments and a bigger “military footprint” than already exist in Afghanistan — and now he is making himself the personal “offset” for Netanyahu’s strident commentary about Iran.
Gates is setting an example in how to manage the complex challenges facing the Obama team that others would be wise to follow. He seems focused on strategy and generating the outcomes America needs — and seems reluctant to support reckless deployments of power abroad, which was more characteristic of the last President he served, and thinks that the real bridge-building and strategic shifts America needs will combine behind the scenes type work like he is doing followed by the photo-ops that he leaves to his administration comrades.
Obama would be smart to encourage similar steadiness — and to a certain degree, selflessness, among those executing his policies.
National Economic Adviser Lawrence Summers comes to mind as someone who should sign up for lessons from the lurking but constructive Defense Secretary.
— Steve Clemons


12 comments on “Lurking Defense Secretary Provides Adult Supervision and Stabilizes Obama National Security Team

  1. Kathleen G says:

    Carroll and Mr. Murder if Israel attacks Iran the right wing Christian fundamentalist fulfill their dream for the second coming of christ….all hell will break lose


  2. Mr.Murder says:

    If Israel attacks over Iraq that country will come unhinged and any remote chance of stabilization will evaporate.
    You think the market is bad now with dips around 7,000 points?
    Imagine it around two thousand.


  3. Big Time Patriot says:

    The President called for the timely withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the majority of Americans want a timely withdrawl from Iraq. Somehow Gates seems to be on the “not so fast” side of things instead of on the side of carrying out the wishes of his commander in chief and his employers, the American people.
    I’ll reserve judgement until i see whether he will really go for a “surge” in Afghanistan with no clear definition of success (been there, done that)…


  4. Carroll says:

    The longer I watch Orwellington DC, the less I want to chit chat on it. Everyone including Gates makes conflicting statements from day to day,week to week, audience to audience. Reading General Patraus’s testimony to congress yesterday he seems to think Israel will attack Iran.
    I only want to know one thing.
    If Israel does attack Iran is there anyone in this country who can stop congress and the WH from throwing the US into it both financially and militarily?
    Is there anyone with a plan to stop this if and when?


  5. DavidT says:

    Good post. When I jump in here its usually with a dispute to one of your points so I thought I’d show some kudos this time :).
    I think Secretary Gates has been about as good as one could have hoped for when he was nominated by President Bush to run the Pentagon. Good for you to point this out even if some hard-core Democratic activists and some anti-Iraq invasion individuals link him more closely to a failed war effort.
    Its nice to see a secretary there that can both listen to and then stand up to the military brass, who contrary to so many people’s views, are not the enemy but simply have a different role to play than the civilian leadership. Ultimately, it is this leadership that should be making policy with as much input as possible from the military that has to execute that policy. As bad news as Rumsfeld was he too did establish that it was the civilian leadership that was in charge. However his policies were so divorced from the military and political realities and he didn’t seem all that interested in views that didn’t comport with his own that he was a disastrous Pentagon leader.
    Its also nice to see someone who is secure enough to know that just because the limelight isn’t focused on him all the time, he’s still in charge. I think “adult supervision” is a fair characterization in his dealings with the Vice President and Secretary of State (along with the more opaque National Security Advisor I guess though really don’t know).
    Let me add as a final note a question which I would enjoy you taking a crack at in one of your postings. Whether the “surge” has worked or hasn’t, our military strategy seems so much wiser now in Iraq and hopefully in Afghanistan (even if you oppose an expansion of troops there) than it was during the early days of the post invasion of Iraq. We seem to have finally learned some lessons from the insurgency theorists. We have learned the importance of not taking the usual — let’s beat the crap out of anyone who gets in our way approach. Instead we seem to understand that what makes our adversaries tick,resent us, and have as their source of support is what we need to diminish rather than diminishing their life, limbs, and fundamental dignity. So my question is this, is our military not now better equipped than in the pre-Iraqi invasion stage to deal with the military component of our challenges across the world? I know you’re not a great liberal interventionist but are we not at least better able to handle such undertakings better than we were able to just 5 years ago (and our responses to these challenges don’t have to all be “interventionist”)? If not, what role do you see for our military in our ongoing efforts at diplomacy and efforts to make the world a better place to live in (and serve our long-term interests in many ways)?
    Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts, streaming the events you involve yourself in, and linking to your other public activities.
    David T


  6. Don Bacon says:

    If management style is so important, granted that the Obama administration has a more pleasing style than Bush’s, then why hasn’t style altered the Pentagon’s out-of-control corporate welfare procurement programs and its expansion of its nonsensical wars laughingly labeled “national security”?


  7. ... says:

    the man overseeing usa’s state sponsored terrorism… glad to get an update on all the finer points and justification for usa’s state sponsored terrorism.. keep those war machines running with any pitiful excuse you can find…. nothing has changed with the usa.. everything continues to erode and get worse..


  8. JohnH says:

    Gates may provide adult supervision, but his credibility suffers enormously when he makes patently false statements in a lame effort recruit more NATO commitments.
    Spaniards and Brits know where the terrorists came from. They don’t need Gates to rewrite history form them. But instead, Gates has the mendacity to claim that “attacks such as those that took place in Madrid and London . . . emanated from the Afghan-Pakistani border area.”
    While the attacks may have been inspired by Al Qaeda successes 8 years ago, there is little if any evidence to show that Al Qaeda masterminded either of them.
    If this is the best the US can do to justify its presence in Afghanistan, then the megalomaniacs in charge of foreign policy should finally concede that we have lots of better places to spend $Billions–like fixing the healthcare system.
    Won’t the bald faced lies ever stop?


  9. Kathy Kattenburg says:

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates, much less visible than any other personalities on the Obama national security team roster, is playing the role of “steady hand” on the President’s team.
    Yeah, the contrast with Rummy could not be starker.
    But here is the most delightful, if not politically significant part: Gates is left-handed!!
    As a proud leftie (in both senses of the word, actually) I am thrilled that both the POTUS *and* the SecDef are left-handed. 🙂


  10. Greg P says:

    If and when Gates retires — supposedly penciled in for the end of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) cycle next April — I hope Obama replaces him with someone of similar views. Chuck Hagel seems to me an obvious choice — and his current perch at the Atlantic Council gives him a good platform to stay plugged into the foreign policy debate while he’s out of government.


  11. Dan Kervick says:

    Is this the same steady Gates who was on the talk shows Sunday contradicting the President’s position on diplomacy with Iran, and pushing for more sanctions?


  12. Charlie says:

    It would seem that President Obama’s decision to keep Secretary Gates on for another year has proven to be a very wise decision. It is amazing to see the difference is style between Bush 43’s first and second defense secretaries.


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