Friday, December 22, 2006

Early Warning: Gates disses American Troops and American People, Arkin, WaPo

William M. Arkin on National and Homeland Security
Gates Disses the Troops, and the American People

Strategy means being mindful that what you do today pays-off tomorrow.

In communications, that means saying the things that build to an overall message.

In action, it means understanding timing and gesture so that deeds and messages culminate with the intended outcome.

Barely a day into the job, no doubt to hit the ground running and demonstrate the seriousness of the problem, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates flew off to Baghdad with a gaggle of generals and aides (including politburo "minders" from the Vice President's office, but that's another point) to further his education.

Back this weekend, Gates is expected to brief the President with his preliminary observations and recommendations.

With Congress out of session, one might ask what the rush is: after all, Washington has already dithered for five weeks since the unambiguous election mandate.

What's the rush? Well, there are American boys and girls fighting and dying in Iraq everyday.

This gets me back to some troubling insight regarding Bob Gates' strategic sense. It is a tradition for the Secretary to serve the troops turkey at Thanksgiving and visit the front lines at Christmas.

Gates couldn't have gone on Wednesday and planned to stay a couple of more days in the war zone through Christmas: for tradition, for compassion?

He has to be back in the United States this weekend to deliver - what -- the thousandth briefing the President has gotten on Iraq?

Welcome to Gates' first misstep, or at least a gigantic window onto this political operator's true stripes. Bob Gates couldn't spend two more days in Iraq to pay homage to the troops because the front to him is in Washington.

I don't normally pick on the mainstream media -- The Washington Post after all is the mainstream media -- but the Pentagon memo today in The New York Times is a particularly egregious example of fluff and filler, a gigantic valentine to power that misses the story.

The New York Times "memo" is the umpteenth profile of the new Secretary and his challenges. It reflects more the Times' elitism and is an endorsement of the Gates style than anything else. The new secretary -- open-minded, humble, and patient -- is contrasted with the aloof and impatient Rumsfeld. Look, I consistently warred with Rumsfeld from 2001, but the Times missed the reality that Gates sat down with a half-dozen soldiers as a photo-op, rushing back to Washington to leave them alone with their glum Christmas away from their loved ones.

I don't want to make too much of Gates' stiff-arming the troops: they'll get over it and no doubt would like the Secretary to spend Christmas in his office if it means coming up with an exit strategy so that next Christmas is different.

But what was the trip to Baghdad for, if not as a photo-opportunity? It isn't as if Gates walked the streets of Sadr City or secretly met with the enemy. Whatever briefings Gates received he could have just as easily gotten in Washington, that is, if he's in such a rush.

But Gates did say one really interesting thing about his observations upon meeting with U.S. commanders and after meetings with the Iraqi Prime Minister and Minister of Defense in the Green Zone and at the airport:

"I think perhaps the Study Group was here a short enough time that perhaps we didn't have the opportunity to explore in the kind of depth I have today with Iraqi officials, so it may have just been my misinterpretation from early September. But what struck me today was the amount of planning, the amount of thinking, the amount of coordination that had gone on on the Iraqi side in terms of how they intend to move forward, and also their thinking in terms of the role that we can play, so I think that it's that change that I noticed."

Thinking strategically, what is Gates saying?

He is paving the way for the President to say in January that the Iraq Study Group didn't have a complete understanding of the Iraqi situation and that they did not fully understand both the commitment of the Iraqi government to create security and the progress they are making.

Surge or no surge, it is now clear that Gates has already made up his mind: we cannot withdraw. Not when the Iraqis are doing so well!

Gates spoke yesterday of the "progress of the Iraqi government in its own -- not only in its own commitment but in its thinking about how to address some of these security issues."

He spoke of "the desire of the Iraqi government to take a leadership role in addressing some of the challenges that face the country" and their desire to "show that leadership to the Iraqi people."

Election mandate or not, Gates will stand firm with the President that the United States can not withdraw now or any time soon. Not when such "progress" is being made!

Back at the front in Washington, Gates has already heard an earful from the uniformed leadership and the Joint Chiefs that they do not favor proposals -- "Democratic Party proposals" -- to withdraw troops from Iraq or set a timetable for withdrawal. A senior military officer who has participated in many meetings tells me that the chiefs are unimpressed with the Iraq Study Group's withdrawal by early 2008 proposal.

"I especially emphasized to the prime minister the steadfastness of American support and our enduring presence in the Persian Gulf," Gates said in his final press conference yesterday.

The steadfastness of American support? When only three out of every ten Americans supports the war?

Sorry America, there is no Santa Claus, at least not in the form of Robert Gates. We may have thought the humble, open-minded outsider was going to blow in to sweep away the old. Instead he is shaping up to be flaccid yes man, one who can't even get his timing right.

By William M. Arkin | December 22, 2006; 9:14 AM ET
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