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Uncommon sense

Defense Secretary Gates may be leading a charge for diplomacy. Is the president listening?

December 22, 2007

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave one slam-bammer of a speech at Kansas State University last month. The admiring echoes, and the e-mailed copies, are still zipping through Washington and world capitals, raising eyebrows and questions. Did Gates discuss the speech with President Bush in advance? It was cleared by the White House, but does Bush truly agree with it? And does he plan to act on Gates' recommendations? If so, this would represent a profound shift in U.S. defense and foreign policy -- for the better.

Gates advanced a "soft power" argument that liberals have made for years: The United States errs in spending nearly $500 billion on the Department of Defense for the military but only $36 billion a year on the State Department to win friends and defang enemies. That's "less than what the Pentagon spends on healthcare alone," Gates said. He called for a dramatic increase in spending on "the civilian instruments of national security: diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development."

In fact, the Pentagon has taken over many of the functions previously performed by the State Department. It even controls nearly a quarter of U.S. overseas development assistance. That's partly a result of its gigantic budget, which is in turn the product of Cold War ideology and traditional pork-barrel politics. State Department dollars don't tend to flow back to lawmakers' districts in lucrative defense contracts and military bases. Diplomats and nation builders have no domestic political constituency. And so the structural mechanisms by which Congress funds national security will have to be overhauled if this country is serious about correcting the mismatch between our capabilities and the threats we face.

As we have learned belatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so-called war on terror won't be fought against Soviet or Chinese tanks in a conventional engagement but against guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists wreaking havoc on weak or failed states. Gates sagely understands that the Defense Department can't be the Department of Nation Building, and that civilian solutions are what tend to prevent wars in the first place.

Gates didn't commit bureaucratic hara-kiri. He said he will ask for still more money for defense next year. And as the only bright light in the Bush administration's war cabinet, he ought to get it. Ask not why Bush had to wait seven years and botch two wars before turning to an enfeebled, last-ditch diplomacy. Instead, read the speech and ask how the president can be convinced that the Gates Doctrine is his last, best hope for a legacy.

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