Monday, October 5, 2009

Clinton, Gates on U.S. Power, Persuasion: "The American Toolbox Should Contain Something Other Than Hammers"

Before an appreciative SRO audience tonight at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, Secretaries Clinton and Gates fielded questions from CNN's Christiane Amanpour and GW's Frank Sesno on some of the top foreign policy and national security challenges of the day: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran. Yet they did not forget to address the question that had originally motivated their joint appearance at GW -- namely, the use of "smart power" by the Obama administration, including in public diplomacy and strategic communication.

At the outset of the event, Clinton and Gates echoed one of the principal themes from our morning "New Directions in U.S. Global Outreach" panels -- namely, that in the Obama administration, there is broad agreement at the top about how the U.S. should go about its business in the world. After recalling that past secretaries of State and Defense at times had barely spoken to each other, Gates emphasized that he and Secretary Clinton "get along" well and that they made sure that their staffs understood it was not "career-enhancing" to stir up disagreements between the two organizations. "It helps," Gates explained wryly, to recognize that the Secretary of State is "the principal spokesperson for foreign policy...Once you get over that hurdle, it all falls into place."

Later, in response to a question from Frank Sesno about who should be in charge of U.S. global information efforts, Gates, with a smile, simply pointed towards Clinton. She spoke enthusiastically about State's public diplomacy role, citing the Department's nudging of Twitter executives to postpone maintenance that would have interrupted service at the height of the Iranian post-election street protests, and efforts in Afghanistan to keep cellphone networks up and running despite insurgent threats. However, both secretaries made the point that on the battlefield, soldiers by necessity had to assume the role of communicators too. Gates pointed out that young military officers and NCOs had stepped up to the role admirably, even without professional training, establishing personal relationships which helped build bridges to the local population.

Sesno recalled that Secretary Gates had done a lot to promote institutional change at the Pentagon, and then asked Gates what advice he would offer Clinton for transforming State. First, Gates replied to loud applause, "the American toolbox should contain something other than hammers." Then, he suggested the challenge might not be so much within the Department, but rather "the willingness of Congress to give [Secretary Clinton] the resources she needs" to rebuild the country's foreign policy and assistance assets.

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