Searching for Robert Gates

In two recent articles — one in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, and another in today’s New York Times — examining the foreign policy and national security strategy views of incoming U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a 1998 New York Times op-ed written by Gates is mined for clues.

Indeed, the article, which can be read in its entirety here by those who subscribe to the NYT’s TimesSelect service, is a valuable record of Gates’ thinking on a particularly difficult issue — the U.S. response to the then-increasing problem of international terrorism. Gates wrote the op-ed in the wake of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

In the Times article today, the piece is appropriately deemed “prescient.” But more important than the evidence it provides of Gates’ foresight is the window it gives us into Gates’ general approach to national security and foreign policy problems. If the 1998 Times piece is any indication, Gates will bring a much-needed pragmatism and realism to his work at the Defense Department.

In its article on Friday, the Los Angeles Times cited the article in a piece whose premise was that Gates’ views are difficult to pigeon-hole. This seems to be just another way of saying Gates’ doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any ideological box — that he seeks solutions to problems that are as complex and multifaceted as the problems themselves, and that his assessments of the latter are made with cold-eyed realism.

Here, for example, is what Gates concludes in the 1998 piece about U.S. strategy toward international terrorism:

We will never prevent all — or even most — such acts. In the world of real choices, we can protect ourselves better. We can bring some terrorists to justice. But, above all, we can pursue policies and strategies that in the long term weaken terrorism’s roots.

We can pursue a peace in the Middle East that does not kowtow to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obstructionism and betrayal of Yitzhak Rabin’s legacy. We can carefully pursue a nascent dialogue with President Mohammad Khatami of Iran and not play into the hands of his militant domestic adversaries (who may see terrorism against us as hitting two birds with one stone).

We can promote human rights and political freedom in the Middle East as we did in the Soviet Union and try to do now in Asia. We can use force against the sponsors of terrorism, whether governments or groups, or, in the case of individuals, we can arrest and try them to show that our reach is, in fact, as long as our memory. And to show that those who send would-be martyrs to attack us do themselves invite martyrdom — or American jail.

This mix of force and diplomacy, this reliance on patience and planning, the painful realization of more casualties to come, is not satisfying emotionally. It does not quench the thirst for revenge or justice; it does not offer beguilingly simple answers to complex problems and difficult choices. In reality, though, it is the only sustainable course.

Gates advocates realpolitik in the service of idealistic goals, sees a place for both hard and soft power, and calls for patience as well as concerted action. In short, his prescription for this particular problem contrasts well with what often has seemed to be the Bush administration’s inflexible, one-note foreign policy.