Pentagon Chief Sees Opportunities In Russia and the War on Terrorism

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the lone Bush Cabinet member continuing into the Obama administration, considers neither today's Russia nor Islamic extremists as big a threat as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the lone Bush Cabinet member continuing into the Obama administration, considers neither today's Russia nor Islamic extremists as big a threat as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. (Pool Photo Via Getty Images)
By Walter Pincus
Monday, January 5, 2009

As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates becomes the bridge between the outgoing and incoming administrations, the views he has offered in interviews and essays since agreeing to remain as Pentagon chief merit a second look.

A longtime Russia analyst during his years with the CIA, Gates today sees Moscow as less of a threat than do many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment. On PBS's "Charlie Rose Show" Dec. 17, he spoke of the historical insecurity of Russian leaders, recalling how Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev was embarrassed in Geneva in 1955 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower's plane was bigger than his. "I mean, this is pretty deep-seated stuff, and so trying to avoid touching on one of Russia's insecurities is almost impossible," Gates concluded.

He cautions, in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs, that before the United States starts to think it must rearm for another Cold War after Russia "crushed Georgia's tiny military," it must realize that Moscow is seeking to "exorcise past humiliation." And although the Russian army has recently improved its conventional forces, it is "a shadow" of what it once was, he says, and "adverse demographic trends in Russia will likely keep those conventional forces in check."

But Gates told Rose that he sees opportunities in new dealings with Moscow. "Russia, for example, supported the renewal of the U.N. resolution on Afghanistan," he emphasized. "Russia is very worried about the drugs coming out of Afghanistan and has been supportive in terms of providing alternative routes for Europeans in particular to get equipment and supplies into Afghanistan."

What does Gates see next for U.S.-Russian ties? "One of the challenges facing the new administration is figuring out kind of where you push back on the Russians and where . . . there are opportunities to build a closer relationship."

Gates's views on the terrorism threat offer the most interesting bridge between President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama.

In October 2004, for example, Bush said that "we are fighting these terrorists with our military in Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond so we do not have to face them in the streets of our own cities." Although Gates does foresee that there could be "similar challenges in a variety of locales," he writes in Foreign Affairs that the proper response is building the security forces of partner governments to prevent "controversial direct military intervention." The United States "is unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan -- that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire -- anytime soon," he writes.

In the Charlie Rose interview, Gates emphasized that the Cold War focused Americans on an existential threat to the homeland but said he does not think that violent Islamic extremists pose "the kind of threat to the existence of the United States that the Soviet Union did, or of the same kind of threat to freedom around the world."

Terrorism, Gates told Rose, is an "ideological conflict" in which the irreconcilables will have to be killed but there are many more potential enemies who could be persuaded not to join them.

At a town hall meeting last month at Balad air base in Iraq, Gates said: "We have the opportunity to recruit them . . . or to keep them from turning to the extremists so that in fact we're dealing with a handful of fanatics instead of a larger group of people who are disaffected and who have come to hate us."

Strategic communications, Gates said, is one potential tool. "How did we end up in a place where the country that invented public relations ended up being outcommunicated by a guy in a cave?" he asked Rose, echoing a question he has posed previously. "It's because we haven't devoted enough resources" to strategic communications and have left much of the task to the military, he added.

On the long-term challenge of terrorism, Gates writes in Foreign Affairs that "the military and civilian elements of the United States' security apparatus have responded unevenly and have grown increasingly out of balance." He places the blame "at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," where in the 1990s hiring for State Department Foreign Service officers was frozen, and the Agency for International Development and the U.S. Information Agency were reduced "split into pieces."

"I think there's huge opportunity in this," he said in Iraq at the town hall meeting. "But it's going to require some creativity on our part in terms of how we go at this challenge. And I think that that's a real challenge facing the next administration."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to

© 2009 The Washington Post Company