Posted tagged ‘Robert Gates’

The Sound Of Reason

November 12, 2013

Last evening, Robert Gates, former CIA Director, Secretary of Defense, and holder of many other leadership positions including President of Texas A&M, spoke in Philadelphia.  In short, he was great.  He spoke clearly and straight forward.  He sprinkled in some insightful humor which both made one laugh and think.  Gates is on a speech giving circuit and if he comes to your city, try and see him.  You won’t be disappointed.

This was not just a light hearted evening.  Gates highlighted his years of service and the men he had served with.  President Reagan was the best, and Presidents Nixon and Carter seemed tied for the least redeeming.  The “take home” observations, however, involved the dysfunction of Congress and the seemingly intractable situation with Iran.

Gates, when asked if Congress was unethical, replied he thought they were no more so than most previous Congresses.  Rather, he said, Congress suffered from too many members who viewed their Congressional service as a “career”.  As such, all decision Congress members make are colored with how they align with reelection plans.  Forgotten is how decisions impact the Country, especially in the long term.

His Iran comments underscored Congress’ weakness.  Iran or Persia as it has been known historically is set upon being the dominant State in the region.  Iran has concluded this means they must possess nuclear weapon capability if not outrightly having them.  The fact that most of the rest of the world does not want nuclear weapons to spread makes no difference to the Iranians.  Just look at North Korea on one hand, and Iraq and Libya on the other hand.  Those with survive, those without perish.

But what to do, cautioned Gates, was a huge problem.  Preventive military intervention like a missile attack might slow the Iranians down but in the end they would rededicate themselves and put their nuclear facilities deeper underground.

Negotiating would almost certainly prove fruitless.  Iranians are great negotiators, Gates said, and they would string out talks until they had what they wanted.

With both the US and Israel having drawn lines in the sand, war looks inevitable (since Gates believed Iran would build nuclear weaponry).  War, however, would open Pandora’s box with the reactions of other Middle East countries or the greater Muslim world not to be predicted.

Should Iran gain nuclear weapon capability and the West do nothing, many other Middle East countries would begin their own programs.  Soon nuclear weapons would be available like AK-47s.

Gates describe Iran as a critical problem with no obvious solution.  With Congress as dysfunctional as it is, the US is in a weak position to forge any plan that would unite other countries in a common stand.  This was the note upon which the evening closed.


It was clear that Gates saw Congress as a much more important and urgent problem to solve than Iran.  Without Congress legislating rationally against a long term set of objectives the Country would become impotent.

As with Iran, Gates offered no new ideas on how to fix Congress, other than it was each of our responsibilities to try and do so.

Getting Serious

June 4, 2011

The proposed 2012 Department of Defense budget calls for $670+ billion.  The DoD budget requests reflects about 1.4 million Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine service personnel.  If the average military person earned $75,000 per year, that would total $105 billion.  Where is the rest of the $670+ billion?

But wait, the average military member does not make $75,000 per year.  You do not see money like that until you reach the upper levels of officer grades.  A better number might be $35,000 per year or a total DoD expense of $49 billion.  So where is the rest going?  Why do we need to spend so much?

We are told the deployments of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing upwards of $100 billion a year.  That is a soup to nuts number, that is bombs, bullets, pay, and equipment too.

We also know we have aircraft and naval ships.  We have troops deployed in Europe, Japan and Korea.  We have training bases all across the US.  All this costs money too.

Defense Secretary Gates has hinted that the budget could be cut by $40 or $50 billion although it would be tough.  Gates is a most reasonable public servant but $40 or $50 billion is not very creative or brave.  It is hardly going to make any dent in the US deficit.

Gates and his successor, Leon Panetta have their hands tied.  There is of course all sorts of special interests advocating for military spending.  This will not change.  But that is not the main cause of cause of the large DoD budget.

Defense spending exists (1) to provide security for the US mainland and (2) carry out US foreign policy.  With the DoD budget 10 times greater than the next largest budget of any other country and about equal to all other defense budgets combined, something is out of balance in this thinking.

A complete review of DoD spending will take time and will bring out the best in demagoguery from our Congress members.  You can hear it now.  “If we cut our budget and we will hurt our security.”

The fastest process would be to simply give Panetta a number, say $450 billion.  That is the total number.  Tell us what you can accomplish with that.

The commotion this request will make will be deafening.  It will make the out cries about ending Medicare seem tame.  Military spending is an entitlement or so the Military Industrial complex thinks.

The idea of providing business welfare through the auspices of the DoD must come to an end.  The US economic machine is not generating the excess profits necessary to support our current military welfare program.

Cut now, the momentum will sustain the country for a long time.

The President’s Call

March 29, 2011

Last evening President Obama outlined why he order American assets used in military strikes on Libya.  The morning after the news media is assessing how effective his speech was.

We all know President Obama is a sports fan.  In most sports, there are referees or umpires.  Someone to judge whether the play or action that had just taken place was within the rules.

“You’re out” (!), screams the first base umpire raising his arm with his thumb extended.  “Charge on number 3” (!), yells the referee rotating his waist forward and the pointing at number 3.

When these plays are clear cut, no one takes notice.  When they are close, it is all about how these officials sell the call.  In a way President Obama was trying last evening to sell his call on attacking Libya.

With no attack on Americans or American interests, and no imminent threat posed towards America, the decision to attack fits the definition of a bad call.  Of course most of us would also want America to stand against the slaughter of innocent civilians.

So does this make it a close call?  The problem is that attacks on civilians happens almost every day someplace in the world.  How does one draw the line?

The President elaborated other contributing reasons.

  • No unilateral action.  The President sought first a consensus of involved countries.  He tied these together with a UN resolution.
  • Chance for cease fire.  Before any attacks were made, the coalition sought a cease fire agreement with Kadafi and the Libyan government.  Had the Kadafi accepted a cease fire, no armed intervention was to take place.  (This requires belief since events went down another road,)
  • No US troops on the ground.  The President promised that the US leadership role would be temporary and would involve no use of American ground military units.  No occupation by the US.

As usual it was Defense Secretary Robert Gates who said it like it is on Sunday.  Gates responded when asked is Libya a vital interest of the US, “no, it is not vital but we do have interests in Libya and we do have vital interests in Middle East and Libya is part of the Middle East… “

The President’s speech seems to indicate that he may have learned from the foolish and wasteful invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The next few days and weeks will reveal whether President Obama’s nuanced move on another Middle East country was the right call or not.

For now, and considering the additional turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen, I think the President made the right call in a very close play.

No Fly

March 12, 2011

Like the morning after a late Saturday night party, America is waking up with a slight headache to the disheartening news that Colonel Khadafi has the superior military tools to route the rebels and stay in power.  The celebration of seeing home grown democracy breaking out in Libya seems more today like a case of mistaken identity.

Our Congressional political junkies, however, have not wasted the opportunity to once more opine on what President Obama (and the US) should do in this situation.  A mixed collection of leaders are pushing the idea of establishing a “no-fly” zone in Northern Libya.  The idea, I guess, is that this will tip the balance of power and the rebels might just win.  Oh yes, and after they dispose Khadafi, life will be good and everyone in Libya will live happily ever after.

Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has counseled against any no fly zone action.  He points out that instituting a no fly zone is an act of war.  It requires first attacking a sovereign country’s air defenses and requires constant patrolling with the possibility of shooting down Libyan aircraft.  Hmmm, I knew there was a reason I liked (and respected) Secretary Gates.

Our Congressional “no-fliers” act as if Gates has not said anything.  They instead talk about how awful a person Khadafi is, and how he has used planes to kill his own people.  Americans can get puffed up thinking about evil people and think it is their duty to fix this wrong.  If these Congressmen had their way, we would have troops on the ground soon in Libya.

There are two big issues Americans should think about first.

The first is…  and what about Iraq?  Saddam Hussein was a bad and evil person and as ruthless as Khadafi.  The Bush (read Cheney) Administration decided 9/11 provided the perfect context to camouflage a regime change.  The US invade a sovereign country and in the process has spent two orders of magnitude more money than 9/11 cost and wasted the lives of far more Americans (and Iraqis too) than were lost in 9/11.  This huge waste has produced a dysfunctional government that has greater loyalties to Iran than the US.  And all this when there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11.

The world is full of bad people and we can rest assured we will see plenty more in the future.

The second issue is…  our country is completely unclear on any type of meaningful consensus on almost anything.  In order to take the first step of a no-fly zone, we must, as a country, be prepared to see the action through.  Who would like to send their sons and daughters to die in Libya?  Who would like to pay more in taxes to fund the war?

Congress is so disingenuous is makes you sick to your stomach.  Congress and the Administration cannot enunciate the simplest of observations about the national deficit and debt.  To hear some, we can cure the deficit problem by cutting farm subsidies and funding for planned parenthood and national public radio.  The brave Republican leadership has expanded the list to include cuts to social security and medicare.  The fact is (and the math supports) that everyone knows that eliminating the deficit will require cuts or changes to medicare, social security, defense spending, and some other discretionary programs in combination with some tax loophole eliminations and yes, maybe even some tax increases.

Congress and the Administration cannot agree on the most obvious deficit facts .  How could we expect our Government to agree on a coherent and sane policy with Libya?  How would they pay for it?


Iranian Strategy

April 19, 2010

Over the weekend, a memo written by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in January of 2010, began a phase of a controlled leak.  Unnamed White House officials briefed certain members of the press that the Secretary was warning the White House that if sanctions did not work (and if history is a guide, they probably won’t), the US really did not have any ready to use option to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. The emperor has no clothes, and it takes someone like Gates to speak so straight forward.

I hope the Obama team will consider other factors in considering policy options.

  • First, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan/Pakistan are problems to all civilized nations. Everyone, including Europe, Russia, and China need to have skin in the game. If there is no joint cooperation, then US should go it alone and pull back. Let the chips fall where they may.
  • Second, under no conditions should the US remain in Iraq. The US should never have invaded but once it did and had broken the Iraqi Government, we had a moral duty to restore order. This has been done. Going forward, we cannot confuse sectarian and ethnic struggles with any duty the US still has to solve them. Only the Iraqis can solve that type of problem.
  • Third, the US needs to disengage from Afghanistan at least to the extent of undertaking police actions. Maintaining a few military bases (like one or two) might make sense but sending troops out on patrol is like building sand walls before the oncoming tide.
  • Fourth, the US should maintain a normal government to government relationship with Pakistan and use our influence to stabilize the Pakistani Government (and therefore the security of its nuclear weapons). As an honest broker, the US should use its good offices to mediate differences between the Pakistanis and the Indians.

If we are not careful and deliberate, Iran could degenerate into a shooting (or bombing) campaign, and that would pin US troops down in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long time. It would also almost assuredly require our Navy to police the Arabian Sea and most likely oil shipments would be disrupted for some time.

The only good news is that it is the Obama Administration that must face this complex problem. The Bush Administration and its ideological view of the world left facts off the table.  Their motto was to shoot first and think later.  While there is no guarantee the Obama team can develop a good strategy, and even if developed, could successfully implement it, there is a chance it might. With the Bush “chicken hawks”, you can be sure they would send your sons and daughters off to these dangers without trying any alternative approach.

New Mates?

January 21, 2010

The captain of a ship picks his mates usually for their skills.  These are people he must count upon.  The captain sets the course and expects the subordinates to execute the plan well. Sometimes, however, conditions change and the crew is just not up to the task. President Obama, one day into his second year, should take a moment and think carefully about his mates.

President Obama seems to be a man of strong values but not strong convictions. Under the guise of being a pragmatist, Obama has compromised on just about every issue that has come his way. Pragmatism is about compromise, of course, but a compromise ought to be settling for something less than ones lofty goal. President Obama is settling for compromises off some intermediate and more comfortable jumping off point, a baby step if at all. Why is that?

In dealing with the banks his mates are Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers. Both of these men, while skilled, knowledgeable, and super well connected with Wall Street. One must ask the question. if Obama is looking for advice, what type of advice do you think he will get?

In dealing with Congress, Rahm Emanual and David Axelrod have simply not delivered. It may be they have done yeoman service, but in combination with President Obama, they have not served him well. The roles of chief of staff and principle advisor are very critical jobs especially when their boss has promised much and does not have a mental plan of how to reach these goals.

With respect to other cabinet appointees, it is more difficult to judge. Secretaries Clinton and Gates have clearly served well. For others, such as Sebeleus (Health), LaHood (transportation), and Napolitano (Homeland Security) it is more difficult to tell at this time.

During the George W Bush years, the ship of state went way off course and functioned in an ineffective manner. “W” was able to get his policies in place and they were absolutely the wrong ideas for the times. President Obama has little to show for his first year. Obama has not driven the ship off course but one has the feeling of America drifting subject to inertia. It is very possible that that could yield a better outcome than “W’s” years but I can’t help but think we can do better.

Positive Sign

January 8, 2010

He’s not a CEO. He’s too professorial. He is a socialist and resembles Hitler in his ways. He dithers. He’s not even a legitimate US citizen. And on and on. President Obama has received a growing amount of divergent criticism during his first year in office. Who is the real President Obama?

This is a much more difficult question than it seems. I challenge anyone to say today who former President George W Bush is (or was). How much of what we know as the “W Years” were a result of “W’s” initiative or his lack of initiative? With President Obama we are clearly seeing a much different style of leadership. Can you remember when “W” ever took responsibility for anything… correctly (he did stand under a sign that said “Mission Accomplished” and we know that was wrong).

As President Obama’s term progresses, I expect we will see some areas where his Administration performs really well, and other areas where there remains much to be done. The ratio of positive signs to lagging signs will largely be determined by how well his appointed team actually functions as a team. Today’s newspapers carried a hopeful report.

Washington sources are reporting that Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has agreed and the President will ask him to stay on as Secretary. Gates who agreed to continue in his capacity as Defense Secretary through the transition from “W” to President Obama, is exactly the type of subordinate Obama (as well as America) needs. He is a team player who is both strategic and pragmatic. At a time when the US has not yet learned that “we are at war” with al Qaeda does not mean what those words meant when we used them in world war II. Armies will never win a conflict with any religious extremist group if that is the main weapon we use. Gates knows this and will provide President Obama with the advice and recommendations to guide America’s response.   More importantly, in this area where no one really knows the correct answer, Gates will advise the President when to stop one strategy and adopt another.

Keeping Robert Gates is a positive sign.