America's Best Leaders: Robert Gates, U.S. Secretary of Defense

Pentagon chief looks for uses of "soft power" in a hard power world.

Robert Gates

Robert Gates

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With its wry realism and emphasis on the American military's "soft power," a speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the National Defense University this fall offered a crystallizing snapshot of his tenure and, Pentagon officials point out, its ultimate departure from that of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

In the speech, Gates told officers that in 42 years of service, he had learned two big things: a sense of humility and an appreciation of limits. "Not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response," he said, advising them to "be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish."

High-tech "transformation" was a Rumsfeld hallmark. Gates's goal is "exactly the opposite," says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Less capital intensive, more labor intensive, with an emphasis on patience and lots and lots of close contact with civilians." It is a remarkable repudiation of Rumsfeld's rather disdainful "We don't do nation-building" remark as Iraq was falling apart after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

New thinking. Gates has discussed this notion of moving beyond simple brute force before, and it's echoed in the Army's new stability operations field manual. "Four years ago, we never could have actually talked about generating 'soft power,'" says Lt. Col. Steve Leonard, one of the manual's authors. "People were hesitant to use such a term."

A constructive capability, Gates noted, is essential for the Pentagon to attain its political objectives: "The U.S. military's ability to kick down the door must be matched by our ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward." He echoed Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, who said, "In the broader battle for hearts and minds abroad, we have to be as good at listening to others as we are at telling them our story."

An emphasis on cleaning up and listening does not always sit well with traditionalists, who argue that the military is, at heart, an instrument of blunt force. It shouldn't, they add, forsake its fighting roots for what some dismissively call the "blue beret" work of the United Nations. But while Gates admitted that "the United States would be hard-pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice," he added, "where on Earth would we do that?"

All this leaves the Pentagon chief in the unusual position of arguing for greater funding for the State Department, which was sidelined under Rumsfeld. Gates also has taken bold steps to hold military leaders accountable for their failures. After the scandal about the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Gates quickly fired its chief, as well as the secretary of the Army. Similarly, when the Air Force briefly lost track of a nuclear weapon earlier this year, Gates sacked its top leadership. The overall contrast with the "shock and awe" of the Rumsfeld era, says Leonard, "is amazing."

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