The Defense Secretary Who Fought for the State Department’s Budget

January 16, 2014 By Zach Silberman

Bob GatesFormer Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has made some headlines with the release of his memoir on his four and a half year tenure at the Pentagon.  But while much of the conversation about the book has focused on palace intrigue and Secretary Gates’ relationships with two presidents, it offers insight into his thinking as one of the strongest advocates for “smart power.”

The Defense Secretary who famously coined the phrase, “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers,” does have some things to say about the use of civilian tools of development and diplomacy.  Specifically, he highlights his speech at Kansas State University in 2007 where he publicly “called for significantly more resources for diplomacy and development—for the State Department and the Agency for International Development.”

According to Gates, “No one could ever recall a secretary of defense calling for an increase in the State Department budget.”  In fact, he makes it a point to highlight the successful working relationships he had with Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton on key issues of cooperation, as well as USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, particularly in disaster relief efforts following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The U.S. relief response to the earthquake put the Department of Defense in a support role to efforts led by the civilian agencies.

Secretary Gates cautions that the past administrations have been too quick to utilize military options and emphasizes, “There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.”

Indeed, the conflicts we face abroad today know no borders and are not the traditional confrontations between Cold War enemies, but include fighting poverty and extremism, and the threat of pandemic diseases.

When reminiscing about interactions with military leaders during the Iraq War, Secretary Gates offers an anecdote that symbolizes the military’s strong support for the civilian tools of development and diplomacy.  In particular, he singles out General Peter Chiarelli, USA (Ret.), former Commander of Multinational Forces—Iraq, because Chiarelli “spoke of the need for more U.S. civilian aid workers and development experts as well as military efforts, and he observed that something like restoring sewer service to an entire neighborhood could have a far more beneficial effect than a successful military engagement.”

(Full disclosure:  Chiarelli recently joined the USGLC’s National Security Advisory Council of nearly 150 retired three- and four-star generals and admirals who support “smart power.”)

Aside from all the news about the bombshells in Secretary Gates’ memoir, he uses the opportunity to highlight the important need for our civilian tools of development and diplomacy to respond to conflict.  As recently stated in an interview, he wrote the book in order to “provide some perspective…and hopefully some guidance” on the key contemporary issues facing U.S. foreign policy.

As today’s complex challenges require more than just a military solution, the perspective of a “smart power” warrior like Secretary Gates can be beneficial to the public debate.