In a little-noticed speech in Washington several weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered some unusually clear-headed thinking about the role of the military in a changing world. He suggested that concerns about "creeping militarization" of American foreign policy are not unreasonable, and he emphasized the benefits of negotiation and diplomacy in a tone refreshingly different from the Bush administration's usual rhetoric.
While acknowledging there will be an ongoing need for military force, Gates said, "We cannot kill or capture our way to victory.'' He said the threat of terrorism can best be fought by encouraging participation in government, economic programs and other efforts to head off festering problems that fuel support for extremists. "It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideology,'' Gates said. That does not sound like a defense secretary eager to invade Iran, and it certainly does not sound like Vice President Dick Cheney.
It isn't much of a stretch to find loose parallels between Gates' themes and Dwight Eisenhower's warnings about the dangers of the "military-industrial complex'' in his farewell presidential address in 1961. Both recognized the need for a strong military but were wary of the enormous political appetite for military spending and advocated a more balanced approach to foreign policy. As defense secretary, Gates has called for a greater emphasis on diplomacy and increased spending at the State Department. That's virtually unheard of in turf-conscious Washington.
Looking beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates predicted the greatest threats in the next two decades will come from within failing nations where the failure to meet basic needs will fuel extremists and terrorists. He said the United States should work to avoid the next rebellion or humanitarian disaster, and he gently suggested "forced regime change followed by nation-building under fire'' is not the model. Instead, he said, "when it comes to America's engagement with the rest of the world, it is important that the military is — and clearly seen to be — in a supporting role to civilian agencies.''
That is a remarkable amount of candor and wisdom from a member of an administration that has been terribly short of both.