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Defense chief: Fight terrorism with ‘soft power’

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says defeating terrorism will require the use of more “soft power,” wielded by civilians.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Defeating terrorism will require the use of more “soft power,” with civilians contributing more in communication, economic assistance, political development and other non-military areas, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday.

Gates called for the creation of new government organizations, including a permanent group of civilian experts with a wide range of expertise who could be sent abroad on short notice as a supplement to U.S. military efforts. And he urged more involvement by university and other private experts.

“We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military, beyond just our brave soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen,” he said in a speech at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. “We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the coming years.”

He said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as U.S. military involvement in the 1990s in the Balkans and in Somalia, have shown that long-term success requires more than U.S. military power.

“Based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former director of CIA and now as secretary of defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use ‘soft’ power and for better integrating it with ‘hard’ power,” Gates said.

Many have argued that the Bush administration missed opportunities early in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns to head off insurgent resistance by failing to focus on economic development, promotion of internal reconciliation, training of police forces and communication of U.S. goals.

‘Success ... a function of shaping behavior’
The lesson, Gates said, is that nontraditional conflict — against insurgents, guerrillas and terrorists — will be the mainstay of battlefields for years to come, requiring more than military power.

“Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior — of friends, adversaries and, most importantly, the people in between,” Gates told his audience of students, faculty and local residents.

He spoke as part of Kansas State’s Landon lecture series, named for former Kansas governor Alfred Landon. Last November the lecture was delivered by the man Gates replaced at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, who made a similar argument in favor of strengthening the role of the State Department and other federal agencies and linking their efforts more closely with those of the Pentagon.

Iran on the minds of protesters
Outside the lecture hall a small group of anti-war protesters wore T-shirts reading “Don’t Iraq Iran.”

Margaret Pendleton, a sophomore public relations major, urged diplomacy, making her point with a sign showing the faces of Iranian children.

“I support the troops, but in the same note I don’t want to see any more war,” she said.

After his speech, Gates fielded questions from the audience, several on the war in Iraq and on the prospects for conflict with Iran. When a woman who described herself as a retired social worker asked him when U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq, Gates noted that a limited pullout has begun under a plan that is to bring home five Army brigades between now and next July. And he expressed hope that conditions in Iraq would improve enough by then to permit further U.S. withdrawals.

Another questioner cited reports of a rising suicide rate among returned Iraq veterans and asked Gates whether he would consider that problem to be a reason to pull out all U.S. forces by the end of 2008.

Such suicides are "a real concern to us,” Gates replied. At the same time, “this is going to be a problem” in any war, along with divorces and other personal upheaval linked to the stress of combat, he said.

The Iran questions focused on the lack of a high-level dialogue aimed at averting war, and Gates reiterated that while no option should be ruled out, he would consider military action a last resort.

U.S. ‘miserable’ at communications game
In his speech, Gates said there is an urgent need to figure out how to better organize the government to meet the security challenges of the 21st century. Among shortcomings in the non-military area, Gates singled out U.S. strategic communications. He said the U.S. government is “miserable” at communicating its goals and policies to foreign audiences.

“It is just plain embarrassing that al-Qaida is better at communicating its message on the Internet than America,” he said. “Speed, agility and cultural relevance are not terms that come readily to mind when discussing U.S. strategic communications.”

He decried the “gutting” in the 1990s of the U.S. government’s ability to communicate effectively.

He also called for bigger budgets for the State Department, whose foreign affairs spending, he said, is less than one-tenth what the Pentagon spends in a year, not counting the costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I am well aware that having a sitting defense secretary travel halfway across the country to make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies might fit into the category of ‘man bites dog’ — or, for some back in the Pentagon, ‘blasphemy,”’ Gates said.

Still, he said, senior military officers often stress to him the importance of civilian roles in Iraq and Afghanistan.