Realism not rhetoric needed to defeat ISIL, warns Gates

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By John J. Metzler

NEW YORK — Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates slammed both the Obama Administration and the presidential primary candidates calling for long-term realism in America’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) terrorism.

“I think that the president has all along underestimated ISIS, has underestimated the degree of fear that they have been able to provoke among a lot of Americans,” Gates stated.

Speaking at a forum at New York’s prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary Gates also derided presidential hopefuls’ tough talk on terrorism stressing, “these men and women are making these broad pronouncements. It’s clear they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

He opined, “So I think at the same time the Administration has underestimated the impact of ISIS and what it’s going to take to deal with ISIS, on the other side of the fence, you’re getting these simplistic and, frankly, ridiculous formulas on how they’re going to take care of the problem.”

Robert Gates at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2011.
Robert Gates at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2011.

Secretary Gates stressed, “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.”

Tom Brokaw, veteran NBC reporter served as moderator setting the stage: “upheaval in the Middle East, jihadism, and dealing with a war that’s a clash of cultures as much as it is a clash of nation-states,” confronts the U.S. domestically and internationally.

Robert Gates who served as Defense Secretary under President George W. Bush and Barack Obama offered a sobering and stoic overview of key issues facing the USA internationally.

Regarding Russia’s role in supporting the Assad regime in Syria while also attacking terrorists, the Secretary stated, that as he and former Secretary of State Condi Rice wrote, “diplomacy is determined by the facts on the ground, not vice versa. And the Russians are helping the Syrian government change the facts on the ground… But the point is that I think, his (Putin’s) collaboration with the Iranians, and with the Syrian regime is working pretty well for him right now in terms of diplomacy.”

He cautioned however, “But long term, I think he has made a mistake, in the respect that most of the Russian Muslims are Sunni and most of the Muslims in the world are Sunni. And he’s aligned with a minority element of the Islamic world. So that may come back to bite him.”

Viewing the wider ISIS threat beyond the U.S., Secretary Gates asserted, “the Russians and the Chinese are both worried about ISIL and about Islamic terrorism…I do think that Putin would like to see ISIL controlled and contained and destroyed. I think they do see ISIL as a danger to them.”

Considering China, Robert Gates told the audience, “I don’t believe that China has any intention of engaging in a global arms race with the United States. I do believe that they intend to establish regional dominance and believe that that is, that comports with their history and their role in the world.” He added ominously, “On the military side, by 2020 the Chinese will have about 350 surface warships and submarines. And the United States will have about 70 in that region.”

The U.S. Navy’s steep decline is part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s massive military budget cuts which since 2011 alone have slashed $485 billion from defense spending.

An exchange on North Korea’s leadership brought a degree of levity if not gallows humor, “we’re now in our third generation of Kims, and with each successive generation we’ve been swimming in a shallower and shallower part of the gene pool. My worry about Kim Jong-un is not only that he’s dangerous, but that he’s stupid.” Regarding Beijing’s influence over the Pyongyang regime, Secretary Gates added that “China has influence in North Korea, but it doesn’t have control.” He views North Korea’s nuclear proliferation as “a very dangerous situation.”

Interestingly, Secretary Gates shed light on an overlooked option for the USA in the global war of ideas. During the Cold War, “You had Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty… 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.” A big mistake.

Given the current global chaos, we should heed Secretary Gates sober assessment while realizing that we must settle in for a long term and focused response.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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