The Best Defense

The Gates files (I): Forget Rumsfeld's rules, this sec def had his own way to roll

It struck me when reading the memoirs of Robert Gates that he effectively lists a bunch of rules for living and working in Washington that are pretty good, and perhaps more astute than the famous collection of rules compiled by Donald Rumsfeld, a less successful defense secretary. Here is my selection of his instructions, all of them offered in his hot new book:

  • Don't always show your hand: "I believed that I would maintain maximum leverage in the process ... if the other players did not know exactly what approach I supported."
  • Likewise, go easy on television appearances. "When it comes to the media, often less is more, in the sense that if one appears infrequently, then people pay more attention when you do appear."
  • But use your prominence to set an example internally. "If I could make time to try to help a single soldier, then by God so could everyone else in authority."
  • Get real. "I'd been around long enough to know that when the head of a cabinet department says his organization has no problems, he is either lying or delusional."
  • Not new, but well put: "This tactic of using high-level reviews to buy time was one I would use often as secretary."
  • Know what you want out of a meeting before you go into it. "A meeting in the Situation Room was never just another gathering for me: outcomes were important, and I always had a strategy going in."
  • Get on top of acquisition. If you don't, "Congress will fuck it up."
  • You can't have a government without a budget. And that means, "For everyone in the executive branch except the president, the Office of Management and Budget is the villain."
  • Understanding the Pentagon: "The Department of Defense is structured to plan and prepare for war but not to fight one."
  • When you make a controversial decision, such as firing a top general, "be willing to meet face-to-face with those most affected."
  • Don't be afraid to plunge into details. "‘Microknowledge' must not become micromanagement, but it sure helps keep people on their toes when they know that the secretary knows what the hell he's talking about."
  • But don't place too much faith in strategy documents produced by the bureaucracy. "I don't recall ever reading the president's National Security Strategy when preparing to become secretary of defense. Nor did I read any of the previous National Defense Strategy documents when I became secretary. I never felt disadvantaged by not having read these scriptures." (Tom: That said, I do wonder whether such documents are perhaps useful as guidance to subordinate officials? But obviously not very much if the SecDef doesn't know or care what they say.)
  • His "proven formula for deep thinking": a dinner of "martinis, steak and red wine."

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The Best Defense

The Future of War (I): A New America project looking at 21st century conflict

In the interest of improving our national security, protecting our rights, and helping get us out of the endless "war on terror," the New America Foundation is launching a project on the future of war. Here is a look at the initial thinking, which is liable to change as our various participants bring to bear their very different areas of expertise.

Plus, isn't it time that there was a study of the future of defense funded by neither the Pentagon nor the defense industry?

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By the Future of War team, New America Foundation
Best Defense office of the future

Throughout history, changes in the conduct of warfare have been one of the primary drivers of shifts in how societies and states are organized. Today, the evolution of autonomous weapons systems, the emergence of ever more sophisticated surveillance technologies, the militarization of cyberspace and outer space, and a range of similar developments are dramatically changing the nature of war -- with profound implications for the nature of the international order, the manner in which we control and constrain power and violence, and the nature of the state itself.

Few seem fully to grasp this, however. For the most part, these changes in the means and methods of warfare are usually viewed narrowly, and understood as matters of interest mainly to specialized communities of policy wonks, military planners, civil libertarians, or counterterrorism experts. As with the story of the blind men and the elephant, many people are looking at different facets of the changing nature of war, each trying to describe what they see (and often misunderstanding what it is they are seeing). That's not good enough: We need to look at the whole elephant. 

With the United States still locked into a "forever war" paradigm that doesn't comport with American values or history, it's more urgent than ever to understand the ways in which changes in the nature of war both drive and are driven by changes in state-level, sub-state-level, and international policies and institutions. At the same time states are developing unprecedented military technologies, the means of mass destruction have been democratized: Today, terrorist organizations and other non-state actors can cause damage and destruction on a scale we normally associate with states. Meanwhile, new technologies are eroding old assumptions about sovereignty and state autonomy. Nonetheless, we still operate mainly within a legal and political paradigm that draws sharp -- if increasingly arbitrary-- lines between domestic and international matters, between states and non-state actors, and between war and crime.

It's increasingly apparent that existing legal paradigms neither provide adequate tools for responding to new kinds of threats nor offer an appropriate framework for protecting human rights and human dignity. As we move forward, we need to find a way to evolve beyond the post-9/11 state of perpetual war -- and we need to do so in a way takes into account these seismic changes, allows for an adaptive response to evolving threats, and enhances the robust protection of human rights.

The New America Foundation is well positioned to sort out the thorny issues that arise from the changing nature of warfare. Unlike most think tanks and NGOs, New America isn't made up of specialists having "insider" conversations with one another: lawyers talking to other lawyers, or defense policy experts talking to other defense policy experts. Instead, New America connects the worlds of law, technology, political science, history, policy, the military, the human rights community, and the media, each of which often operates in isolation.

Core members of New America's Future of War team include journalists, technologists, military history and terrorism experts, human rights experts, and international law and defense policy experts. Our individual and collective expertise and connections enable us to convene the most creative and influential thinkers, writers, and decision-makers from these varied and often separate worlds; develop bold conceptual frameworks combined with more specific legal and policy proposals; write and talk about these intelligibly and interestingly; and attract extensive media coverage to our work and our recommendations.

The Future of War project is led by Peter Bergen, director of national security studies at the New America Foundation and the author of several books. This series was drafted by him and the team's other members: Rosa BrooksAnne-Marie SlaughterSascha Meinrath, and Tom Ricks.