Saturday, January 23rd 2016
On January 20, 2016, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave the Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security at the Council on Foreign Relations. Journalist Tom Brokaw welcomed Secretary Gates and moderated the Q&A session. Gates saluted the work of USIA during the Cold War and offered some thoughts on the consequences of weakened strategic communications. Public diplomacy and broadcasting practitioners will be interested in these excerpts:
- (Gates) . . . politicians have to put spin on things and so on, but they do a disservice in not being honest with the American people that taking on a problem like ISIS and the extremism associated with ISIS is complex, it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to take a lot of time, and it’s going to take some sacrifice. And there are no easy solutions, and there certainly are no quick solutions.
- (Brokaw) Take us through our institutions, military and intelligence, and how effectively they have been able to adapt to this new kind of warfare that we’re dealing with. It’s asymmetrical, we all know that, but it’s beyond that. It’s not a nation-state war. We’re talking about a cultural war. We’re talking about a very nimble enemy in that part of the world, which is a lot more sophisticated than a lot of people want to give it credit for being in terms of how it finances itself, how it communicates with its potential members. Do we have in the government—at the Pentagon and at the CIA—enough people who really grasp the nature of this enemy, have a real sense of the Arab culture and the various players that are out there, because it’s not uniform? You know, when 9/11 happened, there was that startling statistic that we had just a handful of Arabic speakers, I think, in the CIA at that point.
- (Gates) . . . one of the problems that we have that is systemic and has been with us for a long time, really since the end of the Cold War, is that we have also, for many years, starved the civilian talent pool in the government, and particularly those involved in diplomacy, in AID, and in strategic communications.
- . . . I remember vividly, you know, in the Cold War, and some of you who are a little older in the audience remember, USIA under Edward R. Murrow and people like that. You had—you had USIA libraries in every major city in the world. You had Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. And in addition to this panoply of things on the overt side, you had CIA covertly sending millions of copies of the “Gulag Archipelago” into the Soviet Union, and magazines, and things like that.
- So you had this Wurlitzer of strategic communications that was a big part, I think, of success in the Cold War. That’s all been basically dismantled. And that whole big operation now sits in a small corner of the State Department. Those are the people also that you need to rely on in terms of how do you come up with a—with a digital response to ISIS? How do you counter either directly or through other organizations the messaging that ISIS is sending to the West, to Europe and to the United States, that’s radicalizing some of these people and so on? And we’ve basically disarmed that part of the national security toolkit.
- (Amit Sharma) I was intrigued by a statement you made earlier on the underinvestment or lack of investment in empowering agents, USAID and others. If you could comment on how do we reverse that trend . . .
- (Gates) I think it’s a—I think it’s a vicious circle. I think presidents and OMB don’t agree to increases in the State Department budget because they’re convinced the Congress won’t approve it, so why put the—why take money away from something else to add to the State Department numbers when the—when the Congress will just take it away? It’s a lot easier to put more money in a failing program in the Department of Defense than to give these guys anything. So I think what it requires is really some committed, visionary leadership in some key roles on Capitol Hill, and a president with the courage of his convictions.
- Now, the State Department did get some significant budget increases, as I recall, during the Bush administration, and they were able to add some additional Foreign Service officers and so on. But, you know, as Condi Rice used to remind me, I have more people in military bands than she had in the Foreign Service. (Laughter.) Or, to put it another way, if you took every Foreign Service officer in the world, you wouldn’t have enough people to crew one aircraft carrier. So, you know, the disproportion in what’s spent on the military and what’s spent on the civilian side of the toolkit is vast, and that’s easy to explain. But the reality is marginal investments on the civilian side could yield, in my view, disproportionate benefits. But it’s going to require somebody on the Hill being willing to take some leadership and understand the importance of that.