North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Saturday, April 13, 2013

An hour with former US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates

Diverting from the daily roilings around the world, in this post Teatree relates an opportunity he had to listen to former US Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA, Robert Gates. Gate's remarks were delivered as part of the George Marshall lecture series, an event held in what is apparently called "America's Vancouver" (to contrast this humble city on the north shore of the Pacific Northwest's Columbia River, to the internationally admired and sophisticated Vancouver, Canada).

The two Vancouvers ...

Robert Gates served as the 22nd US Secretary of Defense from 2006-2011, being summoned from his position as President of Texas A&M University by then-US President George W Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld. In 2009, Gates was asked to stay on by newly elected President Obama, and thus became the only Secretary of Defense to serve two consecutive presidents of different political parties. Previously, Gates worked up the ladder of the CIA over the course of 27 years, spending the last nine years at the US Security Council, The White House, serving four presidents of both political parties, and leading that agency during the eventful years of 1991-1993 (the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the first Gulf War). He has been awarded the National Security Medal, the Presidential Citizen's medal, several military and CIA honors, and upon retiring from active service as Secretary of Defense, was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama – the highest civilian honor a US President can bestow.

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Gates receiving honor from US President Obama in 2011.

From Washington DC to the other Washington

After this latest retirement, though Gates still serves as a director on several educational and corporate Boards including Starbucks and the National Eagle Scout Association, he and his wife moved to Western Washington. Here in Washington state, as with its own little Vancouver, he is now the lesser-known Gates when compared to the more famous Bill Gates of Microsoft fame.

Gates-the-lesser was in Vancouver on Thursday, April 11, under the George Marshall lecture series which has long been a part of the city's local history. George Marshall was an officer at the long established Fort Vancouver (as was Ulysses S Grant many decades earlier). George Marshall, among many Americans with accomplishments, is regarded as the architect of what became known as the Marshall Plan - financing and reconstructing a devastated Europe after World War II into a powerhouse network of Western allies that collectively resisted the fast-emerging Soviet Union and its Communist ideology for the next 50 years. Gates said that Marshall was a personal hero of his.

The venue

Hudson's Bay High School gym was the place, with nearly two dozen buses of high school kids brought in to fill the bleachers, while adults filled the gymnasium floor. Nice crowd - the agenda, well thought through, had a lot of youth involvement from start to finish. A young lady who was a Marshall scholarship recipient led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance (Teatree briefly sweated a lack of confidence regarding which hand to place on which side of his chest ...). Then another high school singer stepped up and sang the national anthem.

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Tayler Harris, Union High School, sings the National Anthem (Photo from The Oregonian). An aside - Teatree noticed, as the Pledge was finishing, Ms Harris move to the microphone and just before the attention turned to her, close her eyes and take a deep calming breath. Oh youthful confidence!

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The audience in "America's Vancouver" as Teatree (in picture) was inspired and moved by Harris's spirited singing of the National Anthem, and Gates commended Tayler for her effort, calling it one of the best renditions he's had the privilege to hear.

Gate's reflections

He was here to talk with the young people, calling his speech, "What Marshall can teach us about Character."

*Cultivate moral courage - do what is right and necessary, not what is popular. Gates related two incidents from Marshall's military career. One early on when as a captain during World War I and on staff with the Commanding American General Jack Pershing, he challenged - one assumes with respect - Pershing by stating the General was not paying enough attention to the daily burdens of the soldiers and dismissing his aides' advice. Several aides thought Marshall would be sent to the trenches for delivering his opinion, but to Pershing's credit, he kept Marshall on staff, recognizing valuable independent thought.

Second, on the eve of World War II when Marshal was now a one-star General, he was in a military/policy meeting with the US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who had announced his intentions to spend funds to cover the coast of lending ships to Great Britain who was attempting to counteract the Nazi buildup. The funds, however, would be diverted from plans to rebuild and enlarge the US Army (the size of which at this crucial time was still that of Portugal or Switzerland). FDR got a lot of nods from other military staff, and in the end, asked, "George, what do you think of that" expecting another agreement. Marshall said, "I have to disagree completely and here's why..." In Gate's reflection, he said Marshal gave his honest opinion to the President instead of currying favor. Both incidents, in Gate's opinion, affirmed the likelihood that each young person in the gym would some day find themselves having the chance "to stand alone" in doing the right thing.

*Gates then noted Marshall's greatest accomplishment after his service during the war as Chief of Staff of the US Army was the large aid and reconstruction program for Europe in his capacity of Secretary of State. But, Gate said, Marshall's subsequent service for President Truman was increasingly criticized.

President Truman meeting General George Marshall, who retiring from the military after WWII was asked to return as Secretary of State, (and later Secretary of Defense)

As Secretary of State for Truman, Marshall stuck with his President when China became Communist under Mao (and was personally attacked for "losing" China). Resigning in 1948, Marshall was asked to return to the post of Secretary of Defense in 1950 when the Korean war broke out. He supported Truman's decision and perogative when the President later sacked General MacArthur during the Korean war. Though Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his Marshall Plan, criticisms gained the upper hand in later years, with Gates noting that there is such a a thing as "shabby treatment." As you build your character right now, Gates said to the high school segment of the audience, be aware that your actions and behavior and mistakes can be attacked, be prepared for it.

* He concluded his remarks by saying, "get involved with something larger than yourself - something that is deeper and bigger than your own comfort and convenience."

Questions and Answers

Applause. Then high school students from each of four local high schools came to the microphone to ask questions. Before they started, Gates noted that he often hears people begin this segment by saying, "this is probably a dumb question." But he did not go on to state the cliche, "there are no dumb questions," rather that he was not expecting these questions to come anywhere close to some of the really dumb questions he had to deal with during many years of congressional hearings. Laughter.

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Gates answering questions from high school students.

Question #1 - There is a famous picture Administration cabinet leaders, including Gates, and the President in the situation room watching live feed of the Seal operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. What was Gate's thinking at the time and his role of Secretary of Defense in the operation?

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The situation room - Gates was questioned about this photo by one student

Gates said his role was simply to ask the hard questions on the advisability of going ahead with the operation - the primary one was the intelligence that indicated Bin Laden was in that particular house in Pakistan. The intel was not firm, only 40-80%. The percentage question - which is all intelligence can truly offer - reminded him of a rescue mission that occurred during the Vietnam War, when CIA intelligence believed several dozen US prisoners of war were in Son Tay prison in North Vietnam. But when copters arrived with special forces to rescue them, all the prisoners had been moved to another camp 15 miles away - the mission ending in failure though with no US loss of life.

But Gate's toughest moment during the Bin Laden raid moments was when one of the two helicopters crashed into the Bin Laden compound - it reminded him of President Carter's attempt to rescue diplomats being held hostage in Iran 30 years earlier which ended in premature failure when one of the rescue helicopters crashed. That mission had to be aborted, and did involve loss of life. Intelligenceis never a sure thing, and the execution of a plan does not always go well. (All this reminds Teatree of the 2003 Gulf War intelligence failure, the Benghazi attack in 2012 where defense of the US Ambassador to Libya was lacking ...)

But to conclude his answer to the first question, Gates referred to the "situation room photo" and said that within hours of its official release, someone had gotten a copy and photo-shopped in comic hero costumes onto many of those present. The result was black humor, and harmless in itself, but it confirmed Gate's advice to the President then to never release photos of Bin Laden's remains as this irreverence could occur with those images and inflame the Islamic world.

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On a serious note, Gates referred to this photo-shopped picture of the situation room's main characters

Question #2 How did his role as CIA director help his role as Secretary of Defense.

A good question, a matter of fact answer - he understood the role of what intelligence could offer to defense postures and policies. So much rides on good intelligence, and how difficult it is to obtain it. He then noted his own recruitment into the CIA right out of college. He was, he said, first assessed for prospects as a spy. Unfortunately, he was somewhat less of a James Bond and more of an Austin Powers type. He along with two other young recruits were given the task of tailing a female CIA officer through the streets of Richmond Virginia. They were so poor at it, some citizen called the police to report three "disreputable" individuals stalking a woman. His compatriots were picked up by the police (later released), and the only reason he wasn't was that he had lost track of both the target and his colleagues! He found he was better suited as an analyst.

Question #3 What was it like to transition answering President Bush to President Obama?

Likely a reflection on his ability to work for both, Gates did not raise his rhetoric in either direction. He stated that actually the overriding characteristic during the transition was continuity - something that dismays the political wonks. President Obama asked him to keep the defense ship steady while he concentrated on the economic crisis. Gates said regarding the US withdrawal from Iraq, that President Obama simply executed what President Bush had more-or-less negotiated with the Iraq government concerning draw down details; though as to the conflict in Afghanistan, President Obama actually "doubled down" the effort there. Gates said the difference between Bush and Obama was relatively easy, noting he had worked in the high levels of government when led by Jimmy Carter, followed by Ronald Reagan.

Question #4 (This was the only one of four that was more of a statement with a political edge, delivered with all the insouciance of a fast-talking high schooler), "Mr Gates, thanks for being here this morning. With drone warfare now prevalent in Pakistan and other parts of the world, and where its use is resulting in the deaths of up to 30% civilians, what are the dangers it represents? Especially in Pakistan, with whom we are not at war. (Self satisfied smile)"

Gates was not at all flapped, and said first he believes the actual civilian death claims from drone strikes are vastly overestimated as purposeful propaganda by the Taliban and Al-qaeda. One of the major advantages of drone attacks, in his opinion, is that the operator can literally wait for the moment of his choosing to fire - wait until the target is out on a road by himself, or away from a crowd, etc. He believes the Taliban often coerce civilians to surround them in order to deter drone attacks. He believes by and large that drones are a huge asset in precision warfare. (Teatree still finds himself somewhat discomfited by this perspective, though the whole complex aspect of warfare is a little overwhelming to discuss consistently.)

So, there we have it. Some "real" news rather than regurgitated summaries of happenings, in spite of Teatree's best efforts to capture those items with some sense of accuracy.

Early in the lecture's agenda, there was a time where dignitaries were acknowledged. Active military service personnel were asked to stand, and then more potently, members of gold star families (families who have lost a son or daughter in the services). It reminded Teatree that Mr Gates has, as with many of America's leaders, been personally involved with the loss of individuals and the consequences for the families during this past decade of war.

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