Skip to content Skip to footer

Defense Secretary Gates Is Not a Diplomat

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has played the “ugly American” in Tokyo, cast in a role he should not have been given.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates responds to a reporter's question during a press conference at the Pentagon, March 18, 2009.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has played the “ugly American” in Tokyo, cast in a role he should not be given. This performance speaks to the need for a demilitarized national security policy. It is the role of the secretary of state to conduct delicate overseas missions. Japan is experiencing extreme economic pressures, and the new Japanese government is preparing to withdraw from its commitment to refuel Western warships in the Indian Ocean and to become less active in positioning military forces against China. While in Japan, Gates demonstrated his anger and impatience with the Japanese, declining invitations to dine with Japanese Defense Ministry officials and to attend a welcome ceremony at the Defense Ministry.

Gates’s petty behavior highlights three issues facing the Obama administration. First, the new Japanese government of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which ended the fifty-year run of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), will be more protective of Japanese interests. Second, for the past two decades, the US Defense Department has been taking over key functions in bilateral relations and foreign economic and military assistance, traditionally managed by the State Department. Third, the Obama administration erred in retaining a cold warrior like Gates as secretary of defense in the wake of a political campaign that was devoted to genuine change in US foreign policy.

The United States must understand that its military and economic weakness, brought about by poor decisions regarding use of force in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, has opened the door for our traditional allies in Asia and Europe to assert their will in foreign policy matters. Japan will no longer automatically perform as America’s “aircraft carrier” in the Pacific. The United States currently occupies 134 military bases and facilities on land in Japan that is greater in size than Tokyo, representing an “occupation” footprint. The DPJ won a landslide victory in August, pledging that it would not automatically conform to US wishes and that it would seek savings in defense policy. The United States, now the greatest debtor nation in world history, will have to adapt to a global currency system less centered on the dollar and countries such as China and Japan will be more assertive in their dealings with the United States. Huge US deficits could lead the Chinese and the Japanese to be less willing to hold US dollars and to finance US military adventures abroad. The Obama administration will have to pursue a diplomatic strategy that does notrely on personal pique.

For the past two decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have weakened the balance between the key instruments of foreign policy, permitting the Defense Department to dominate the field of international security, even in areas that are not purely military. The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 weakened the role of the civilian secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the “principal military adviser to the president, the National Security Council and the secretary of defense.” Goldwater-Nichols also enhanced the authority of regional commanders of forces in major areas, thus weakening the stature of assistant secretaries of state and key ambassadors in the field. Regional commanders such as Generals Anthony Zinni and David Petraeus initially became “proconsuls to the empire.” In May 2003, several weeks after mission accomplished was declared, the US military conducted a raid on the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Baghdad without consulting any civilian official in Iraq. A series of weak secretaries of state since 1993 have contributed to the imbalance.

Gates, throughout his 30-year government career, has never been known for tact or politesse. He is certainly no diplomat. In the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s, he earned the ire of secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker for trying to undercut efforts of the State Department to improve relations with the Soviet Union. Baker even went to President George H.W. Bush to make sure that Gates’s boss, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, kept Gates out of the way of policy. Last year, he angered the European members of NATO by haranguing them publicly, demanding greater military participation in Afghanistan. In the wake of this harangue, several NATO members (including Canada and the Netherlands) announced troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. His gratuitous behavior in Japan on this latest mission will only create problems for the United States as it seeks to negotiate delicate political and military issues with the government of Yukio Hatoyama, who is committed to a more “equal” partnership with the United States and to improved relations with other Asian nations, particularly China.

It is time for President Obama to give some thought to placing his man at the helm of the Pentagon. It was Obama’s original intention to keep Gates in place for one year in order to manage the withdrawal of military forces from Iraq and hopefully placate Congressional Republicans who favor US troop deployments at current levels. But there are Democrats such as Richard Danzig, Larry Korb and Sen. Jack Reed (Rhode Island) who have military experience and have written creatively about the need for change. The president needs a “new thinker” who can develop strategies for reducing the US military presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea, which we cannot afford and don’t require at current levels, and for more diplomatic and non-military solutions for outstanding problems in an era of significant resource constraints.

Countdown is on: We have 8 days to raise $46,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.