Best Defense

Gates & Clinton lovefest: an eyewitness report

Here’s a guest post by Jennifer Bernal of CNAS, who went to see the Hillary& Bob Show on Monday: This afternoon, George Washington University hosted a discussion with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The talk was part of a series of high-profile events organized by the University to get ...

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Here’s a guest post by Jennifer Bernal of CNAS, who went to see the Hillary& Bob Show on Monday:

This afternoon, George Washington University hosted a discussion with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The talk was part of a series of high-profile events organized by the University to get students to engage with members of the government. To complete the celebrity roster, Christiane Amanpour and Frank Sesno moderated the discussion. The event drew hundreds of students to line up for tickets, several of them camping out on the street overnight to make sure they got dibs. Once the office actually opened, said tickets ran out in less than a half hour. (I’d only witnessed such zealous and long-lasting queuing on two past occasions: for sign-ups to the wine-tasting class offered by my college, and for a summer production of Hamlet featuring Jude Law.) 

(Read on)

The discussion revolved around four main topics: the relationship between State and DoD, Afghanistan, Iran, and 21st century diplomacy. Sesno and Amanpour were surprisingly provocative with their prompts, but Gates and Clinton were hardly fazed, so it took a while for the conversation to truly get going. As was repeatedly pointed out by the participants and moderators, it’s not every day that you get to see the Secretaries of Defense and State sitting together and talking to one another, much less defending each others’ positions. And Gates and Clinton did this a lot — complimenting each other and positing that their “wonderful” personal relationship trickled down the government bureaucracy, affecting interactions between both their departments. It took a while to get to other matters.

On Afghanistan, Sesno and Amanpour asked that question that has been circulating so much around the media recently: Can the U.S. win? Clinton skirted the question. Gates was slightly less vague, arguing against the use of loaded terms like “winning” and “losing” in favor of the notion of “accomplishing objectives,” which he believes the U.S. can definitely do. Although he admitted that the Taliban currently has the advantage of “momentum” in the region, he reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will keep receiving aid and support in the long run.

Neither Gates nor Clinton answered the crucial question on whether achieving these objectives required expanding the presence of U.S. troops on Afghan soil. “We’re not going to discuss the President’s options or where he ought to go,” said Gates. He strongly conveyed his preference for providing candid advice to the President through private, not public channels. This elicited Sesno’s bluntest question, when he asked Gates: “Are you trying to muzzle General McChrystal?” Although Gates appeared to be implicitly condemning McChrystal’s public appearances, he said that he trusted the general’s decisions no matter what.

In the end, I was struck by how short the event felt. I guess splitting an hour between four individuals doesn’t leave much room for either to shine through substantive discussion, especially when you have figures of such high standing on the stage. It did not help that there were numerous pauses in the discussion to give the CNN cameramen time to change their tapes. Overall, though, it was very encouraging to see witness such a good rapport between the two secretaries this early in the administration.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
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