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Brookings Institution Dinner (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C. , Monday, May 05, 2008

Thank you, Strobe.

It is an honor to be with so many distinguished guests and friends from different walks of American life.

As some of you know, I’ve been on the road for much of the past week, visiting Mexico and Fort Bliss in Texas

So it’s certainly good to be back in Washington – NOT.

They say Washington’s a city of monuments. I have to say the most monumental things that I’ve seen in over 40 years are the egos of some of the people who work in this town. The most monumental ego I ever saw, as Secretary McNamara can probably attest, was the first president I worked for, Lyndon Johnson.
        Johnson once had the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Ludwig Erhard, to the LBJ ranch, and Erhard at one point asked, “Well, Mr. President, were you born in a log cabin?” And LBJ responded, “Why no, Mr. Chancellor, I was born in a manger.”
        Or the time he gave a stag dinner in the White House and Bill Moyers was there and Moyers was a White House staffer seated at the end of the table below the salt, where White House staffers belong. Johnson asked Moyers to say the blessing and Moyers started to pray and a few seconds into the prayer, Johnson lifted his head, looked down at Moyers and said, “Bill, I can’t hear you.” And Moyers, without lifting his head, looked and said to the President, “That’s cause I’m not speaking to you.”
        Washington is also a city of monumental embarrassments. Like the first time that President Nixon met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir after appointing Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State. Golda Meir had with her her Cambridge-educated foreign minister, Abba Eban.   Nixon turned to Golda Meir and said “Just think, Madam Prime Minister, we now both have Jewish foreign ministers.” And Golda Meir looked at him and said, “Yes, but mine speaks English.” 
As Strobe mentioned, one of the things I’ve tried to do in my limited tenure as Secretary is focus attention on areas where our military, and the U.S. government as a whole, need to change to deal with the kind of security challenges we are going to face for the next several decades.

A drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq is inevitable over time – the debate here in Washington is now principally about pacing and timing.  But the kind of adversary we face today – violent jihadist networks untethered from nation states – will not allow us to remain at peace.  What has been called the “Long War” is likely to be many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity.  This generational campaign cannot be wished away or put on a timetable.  There are no exit strategies. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us.

At the same time, rising powers of new wealth and uncertain intentions are showing assertiveness on the world stage.   Rogue regimes continue to pursue dangerous weapons and the means to deliver them.   All these challenges will co-exist alongside the destabilizing scourges of poverty, hunger, disease, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation.

In many ways, the basic nature of man and the iron realities of nations have not changed. What has changed, in my view, is that the international environment today is more complex, and more dangerous, than it has been in many decades.

The challenges are manifold and nearly all, by their nature, long-term, requiring patience and commitment across multiple administrations and congresses. Many challenges will emerge from within countries with whom we are not at war. Coping with most will require working with, or through, other nations. The challenges cannot be overcome by military means alone, and extend well beyond the traditional domain of any single government agency or department. They will require our government to operate with unprecedented unity, agility, and creativity. And they will require devoting considerably more resources to non-military instruments of national power.

The American government has for the most part tried to meet post-Cold War challenges and pursue 21st century objectives with processes and organizations designed in the wake of the Second World War. The National Security Act that created most of the current interagency structure – the Department of Defense, CIA, and the National Security Council – was passed in 1947. The last major legislation structuring how America dispenses foreign assistance was signed by President Kennedy. 

These Cold War institutions were far from perfect. Our government was plagued by turf wars, stovepipes, and conflicts over personality and ideology.  There were military, intelligence, and diplomatic failures in Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan, Grenada, and many others.  But despite the problems, we understood that the nature of the struggle required us to develop and support key capabilities and institutions and, over time, devote the necessary resources – people and money – and get enough things right while maintaining the ability to recover from mistakes along the way. 

The nearly two decades since the end of the Cold War have presented a different set of challenges to our national security apparatus. We have seen a number of events and developments that called on our military and civilian agencies to train and equip indigenous security forces, jump start reconstruction, provide jobs, and improve public services – and to do all these things in the face of brutal and adaptive insurgencies. 

Overall, dealing effectively with the missions at hand has been hindered by lumbering bureaucracies operating with peacetime processes, authorities, and budget cycles designed to act in months and years when results were needed in days and weeks. Despite the heroic effort of individual soldiers and diplomats and many successful operations – the surge in Iraq being the most recent and compelling example – the whole of our government’s activities has often added up to less than the sum of the parts.  

In some cases, the obstacle was simply a matter of having enough of the right people with the right skills. Since 2001, the base budget for the Defense Department has grown to more than half a trillion dollars, a more than 70 percent increase – not counting the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But it was only recently that we began to recoup part of the deep cuts in personnel made at the end of the Cold War, when the active Army alone lost nearly 300,000 troops – 40 percent of its strength.  Last year, I recommended, and the President directed, an expansion of the Army and Marine Corps by more than 90,000 troops over the next five years. The Congress on a bipartisan basis has been strongly supportive. This increase, along with a range of other measures, should reduce the stress on our ground forces – both troops and their families – the small sliver of our population who have borne the burdens and sacrificed so much on our behalf.

However, this increase in manpower is more than just a response to the strains of the current conflicts. We have seen that, if nothing else, the asymmetric conflicts of the 21st century – the “war amongst the people” as British General Sir Rupert Smith put it – are inherently manpower intensive affairs; campaigns where America’s traditional advantages in firepower and technology do not necessarily provide victory in the way that Clauswitz would have understood it, which is achieving a political objective. In today’s world of asymmetric conflict, technology is a critical enabler, but it is no substitute for sufficient number of well trained, innovative boots on the ground.

In this area, the past is prologue. Ever since General Winfield Scott led his army into Mexico in the 1840s, nearly every major deployment of American forces has led to a subsequently longer military presence of substantial troop size to maintain stability. General Eisenhower, when tasked with administering North Africa in 1942, wrote, “The sooner I can get rid of all of these questions that are outside the military in scope, the happier I will be! Sometimes, I think I live 10 years each week, of which at least nine are absorbed in political and economic matters.”

The requirement for the U.S. military to maintain security, provide aid and comfort, begin reconstruction, and stand up local government and public services will not go away.  At least in the early phases of any conflict, military commanders will no more be able to rid themselves of these tasks than Eisenhower was.  As a former U.N. Secretary General once said about peacekeeping, “[It] is not a job for soldiers, but only soldiers can do it.”

These kinds of operations are likely to continue because, as I told an Army gathering last year, it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional military terms for some time to come. 

The record of the past quarter century is clear – the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular armies. The good news is that due to the innovation of leaders like Generals David Petraeus, Ray Odierno, and Stan McChrystal, as well as the creativity and commitment of countless other officers and NCOs in the junior and mid-level ranks, our military is adapting and evolving – often re-learning old lessons – to deal effectively these threats. The key is to institutionalize the capabilities built and lessons learned from the ongoing campaigns, as our adversaries – which include nation-states – look to exploit our vulnerabilities and avoid playing to our strengths.

But even a reformed and transformed military establishment is not sufficient to protect our national security and advance our interests. America’s civilian instruments of national power, in particular the State Department, have suffered from chronic underfunding for decades, and were virtually gutted in the 1990s. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development twenty years ago was an independent agency with some 15,000 employees and deployed experts all over the world. It now has about 3,000 people and is basically a contracting agency. USIA was an independent agency that conducted strategic communication on a global scale before it was folded into the State Department. Today, the entire Foreign Service –6,600 men and women – would not be enough to crew one air carrier strike group. The total foreign affairs budget is less than the DoD spends on health care.

   In recent years, we have made progress towards rebuilding and modernizing tools of diplomacy and American influence abroad. The foreign affairs budget has about doubled since 2001, though it remains a tiny fraction of what we spend on defense. Secretary Rice has initiated a program of transformational diplomacy, moving people from where they made sense during the Cold War to where they make sense now.   Increasing numbers of Foreign Service officers now serve with the armed forces, both on the front lines in provincial reconstruction teams and in military headquarters where their expertise and insight has been invaluable. This year’s budget request includes funding for more than 1,000 additional Foreign Service officers, as well as a reserve corps of civilians that can deploy on short notice. But the State Department must be strengthened even further – in money, people, and bureaucratic clout – to truly fulfill its responsibilities as the lead agency in American foreign policy.  

There is strong support in the ranks of the military for building up this civilian capacity. In fact, it was at a Brookings event last year that Admiral Mike Mullen, as Chief of Naval Operations, told Carlos Pascual [Pass Kwall] that he’d be willing to give part of the Navy’s budget to the State Department – a small part, mind you – provided it was spent properly. 

What is encouraging is that a consensus appears to be forming at long last among people of varying ideologies and of both political parties that we need to strengthen America’s nonmilitary instruments of national power. There is also a sense that we should take a hard look at the underlying bureaucratic structure of the U.S. national security apparatus inherited from the Cold War era.

Three weeks ago, I testified with Secretary Rice before the House Armed Services Committee. The subject of the hearing was interagency cooperation between State and Defense, with a particular focus on helping other countries build capable security forces. I was advised before the hearing to expect, at most, a couple of questions on these subjects, before the questions all turned to Iraq, or base closures, or the fate of a particular weapons system. 

But in fact, for the better part of three hours, the questions and discussion focused on the topic of how our U.S. government civilians and military perform and cooperate together. Members of the committee, both Republicans and Democrats, were interested, they believed change was needed, and they wanted to know what they could do to help.

One of the items we discussed was whether ad hoc incremental change current structure is best, or whether we should proceed with a legislative overhaul along the lines of a new National Security Act of 1947, but one for the 21st century. At the request of the Congress, the Department of Defense is funding a study to address that very issue, and organizations such as Brookings with your 21st Century Defense Initiative represent an excellent source of independent expertise. I believe the question of how to reform our interagency structures for national security ought to be high on the agenda of the next president.

At this point I should note that one of the reasons I am rarely invited to lecture in political-science departments, including at Texas A&M, is that I usually tell the students that most of what they’ve learned in textbooks about how government works (or doesn’t) doesn’t really get at the essence. What matters most, I believe, based on 42 years of experience and observation, are people and their relationships. 

Not even the most enlightened or well-crafted interagency structure will work, for example, if the Secretaries of State and Defense can’t stand each other and won’t work together, as too often has been the case during the seven presidencies in which I have served. The fact that our respective bureaucracies know that Condi Rice and I get along goes a long way towards making sure that serious attempts are made to reconcile differences and coordinate policy – at least most of the time.

And conversely, just about any bureaucratic apparatus – no matter how outdated – can be made to work if you have the right people in place. One example is our mission in the Philippines. There we have a superb Ambassador – Kristie Kenney – who has overseen a campaign involving multiple civilian and military agencies working closely with their Philippine counterparts in a synchronized, near textbook counterinsurgency effort. The result has been one of the unheralded successes in the war on terror, which is the rolling back of Islamic extremists in Mindanao.   Whatever the squabbles or sclerosis here in Washington, D.C., the men and women on the front lines, both in and out of uniform, are finding ways to get the job done.

Institutionalizing or legislating that kind of unity of effort here in D.C. will be a tall order. Consider the original 1947 National Security Act, which among other things, was designed to unify the branches of the armed forces. This reform was originally violently opposed by the military services, in particular the Navy, which was accustomed to being its own cabinet department. James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, noted that one of the reasons the military service chiefs were so hostile was that they took the term “unify” to mean “merge” – defined by the dictionary as “to swallow up.”

I raise this because there may be some similar concerns today when we talk of better integrating – and unifying – the national-security apparatus of our government. Due to the vast difference in people and resources between State and Defense, there may be fears – in parts of Capitol Hill or Foggy Bottom – that any unified effort or program will, in effect, be “swallowed up” by the military. The concern is not unreasonable.

However, disparities in size and resources can be dealt with if we have civilian agencies that are empowered, given additional resources and people, and are fully staffed and funded, properly organized, and aggressively supported by our political and defense establishments.

The key, it seems to me,  is to develop institutions, processes, and policies for the next decades that, as during the Cold War, can attract broad bipartisan support over time, despite the inevitable disagreements that will take place along the way.

In closing, I should note that when reading the latest news bulletins from certain parts of the world it may seem like the problems are too intractable, the challenges too daunting, and the costs of success too high. But I remember what things were like when I first came to Washington in the summer of 1966, at the height of the U.S. buildup in Vietnam.
        What lay ahead were:

·         Violent domestic turmoil;

·         Two assassinations at home of historic consequence;

·         A major war in the Middle East;

·         The seizure of a U.S. Navy ship by North Korea;

·         The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia;

·         And the resignation of a president in disgrace.


        By the end of the 1970s we saw:

·         A collapse in Vietnam, and the deaths of millions across Southeast Asia;

·         High inflation;

·         High interest rates;

·         Two energy crises;

·         The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan;

·         Revolution in Iran and our embassy taken hostage; and

·         Tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers in Angola and Ethiopia.


By 1980, the Soviet Union seemed ascendant and we were reeling.       

Who would have anticipated during that discouraging period, that the groundwork was being laid – through policies pursued by administrations of both political parties – for the remarkable turn of events that occurred a decade later: the fall of the Berlin Wall, victory in the Cold War, reunification of Germany in NATO, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the liberation of hundreds of millions of people behind the Iron Curtain and around the world.

There are, I think, two lessons from all this. First, our weariness with conflict – with the setbacks and tragedy of war – is understandable and to be expected. But second, we must not let that weariness cause us to withdraw from the world or diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges of tomorrow. 

There is no way to predict the future, nor can we predict the effect that decisions made today will have a decade or two from now. But, I believe, one thing is clear from history: When America is willing to lead the way; when we meet our commitments and stand with our allies, even in troubling times; when we prepare for challenges and threats that are on the horizon and beyond the horizon; and when we make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary risks to defend our values and our interests – then great things are possible, and even probable, for our country and the world. 

At such a time, it is perhaps fitting to close with the words of Winston Churchill, who said of us, “The price of greatness is responsibility … The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.” That was true when Churchill said it in 1943, and it is still true nearly 65 years later.
        As a nation, we have over more than two centuries made our share of mistakes. From time to time, we have strayed from our values, and on occasion we have become arrogant in our dealings with others. But we have always corrected our course. And that is why today, as throughout our history, I believe this country remains the world’s most powerful force for good. Because we stand for liberty and we stand for the God-given worth of each and every person. As we look to the future, I am confident that this country will continue to be a beacon for all who are oppressed, and it will continue to accept its responsibility for leadership in the world. And that is good news for the world.
        Thank you.