Back Channels: Words of hard-earned wisdom on national defense

Posted: October 02, 2011

There seems to be something about the job of defense secretary that attracts blunt, no-nonsense realists.

Exhibit A was on display last month at the National Constitution Center, where Robert Gates demonstrated again why Republican and Democratic presidents wanted him running the Pentagon.

In a public question-and-answer session early in the day, in media interviews, and finally at the Liberty Medal presentation, Gates was thoughtful, professional - and blunt.

Asked about a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood, he noted that as the "ultimate realist" he looks at whether an action will advance or deter the cause of peace. Gates said a unilateral move by the Palestinians deterred, but added that actions from both sides had stood in the way of progress over the years.

He defended what some consider an unnecessarily protracted survey of the military on the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He stressed that ultimately the opportunity for all service members to ask questions, raise concerns, and work through potential scenarios would help ensure a smooth implementation of the new policy.

When an ROTC student asked what constitutes an act of war when it comes to cyber-attacks, Gates said it was a question he frequently asked at the Pentagon and one that was still largely unanswered.

Citing budget realities, he said the military couldn't afford "niche" weapons systems suitable for only one battlefield contingency. However, he also noted that defense spending - at historic lows as a percentage of gross domestic product - is not the cause of the budget crisis.

He told ROTC students that while studying team-building and group dynamics was important, especially for military leaders, they should also realize that at some point in their careers they "will have to stand alone, to say, 'This is wrong.' " And they should start preparing for such a moment long before they become general officers.

"Developing independent thought and character do not come overnight with that first star," he said.

That evening, in accepting the Liberty Medal, he called out a wrong - "the dysfunction in our political system."

He told the audience: "At a time when our country faces deep economic and other challenges at home and a world that just keeps getting more complex and more dangerous, those who think that they alone have the right answers, those who demonize those who think differently, and those who refuse to listen and take other points of view into account - these leaders, in my view, are a danger to the American people and to the future of our republic."

Exhibit B is former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was defense secretary during the first Gulf War and recently released his memoir, In My Time.

Cheney expresses regret over some events that occurred while George W. Bush was president. There was the hunting accident in which he shot his friend; the forced retirement of Marine Gen. Peter Pace, denied the usual second tour as chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and the lack of a presidential pardon for his chief of staff "Scooter" Libby - a "grave error," the intensely loyal Cheney calls it.

But about the most controversial calls made over eight years, Cheney has no regrets.

On his energy report, and a much-panned statement on the need for both conservation and more production: "I stand by it 100 percent."

The terrorist surveillance program? "I know it saved lives and prevented attacks. If I had it to do all over again, I would, in a heartbeat."

Gitmo? "I don't have much sympathy for the view that we should find an alternative . . . simply because we are worried about how we are perceived abroad."

Military trials for terrorist detainees, he says, are "the best forum in which to try enemy combatants . . . and I have been gratified to see the Obama administration come around to the same way of thinking."

Enhanced interrogation? "The program was safe, legal, and effective."

Cheney is unequivocal in his belief that the Bush administration acted to defend the country and American lives in accordance with U.S. values after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And he fully supports those sent to the front lines, including CIA interrogators under investigation by the Obama administration.

Cheney said in 2009: "For all that we've lost in this conflict, the United States has never lost its moral bearings. And when the moral reckoning turns to the men known as high-value terrorists, I can assure you they were neither innocent nor victims. As for those who asked them questions and got answers: They did the right thing, they made our country safer, and a lot of Americans are alive today because of them."

These two men epitomize the independent thought and character Gates mentioned, and the nation has benefited greatly from their wise counsel and decades of service.

Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@ or 215-854-5305.

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