Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen Spoke Candidly About Broken NATO and Damaged Relation With Pakistan – But No Ripple Effects, As They Were Both About To Retire – Yet Issues Publicly Raised Are Huge – When Will We Debate Them?

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By Paolo von Schirach

October 1, 2011

WASHINGTON– We have a new “rule” in Washington: if you are a key policy maker about to retire with your reputation intact, (that is you are not kicked out of office in disgrace), you are allowed, may be just once, to “tell the truth”. You can say what everybody knows but dares not articulate in public for fear of repercussions. You do not overdo it, but you get a pass, even if you what you say is really strong. Even though what you assert will be embarrassing, there will be no scandal, because all parties, including those you openly offended, know that you are just about out the door. And the administration can politely deflect saying that they understand your feelings, (you are a high ranking public servant with impeccable credentials), even though they would not characterize the issue the way you did.

Candor allowed to retiring policy-makers: the cases of Gates and Mullen

So, you can get away with it. You threw the bomb. It did some serious damage. But there were no secondary explosions because everybody knows that you are out, and so the game of pretense can continue once you left the room.

What am I talking about? I am talking about the two top people at the Pentagon, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and just retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen.

Gates to NATO: European contribution to the Alliance is a joke

And here are the facts. A few months ago in his farewell speech to NATO, Secretary Gates lashed at the Europeans, pointing out that their puny and falling defense spending reduced the Alliance to a “US only operation”, with truly modest cameo roles by just a few Europeans. Gates cited the fact that in the (then ongoing) Libya conflict the European air forces had run out of smart bombs just a few weeks into what was supposed to be an easy war with a third rate military power. Gates warned hie European NATO audience that this lack of commitment to the central security arrangements linking the US, Canada and Europe at some point will force a Washington re-evaluation of the alliance itself. Allies who contribute almost nothing militarily, (leaving aside significant political differences, itself another irritant), are not real allies.

No reaction because Gates about to retire

In a different context, this open scolding by a US Secretary of Defense would have caused a political crisis. But Gates’s speech did not. The Europeans took it. Gates went back home and a while later he was gone, for good. We have not heard the new Pentagon incumbent, Leon Panetta, picking up from where Gates left off, openly prodding the Europeans to get serious about military spending. And so, this “event” was treated as a one time rant by a tired soon to be retired Secretary of Defense. Under the circumstances, he was allowed his tirade.

Mullen: Pakistanis are double crossers

More recently, it was Admiral Mullen’s turn to be candid. In his case, it was just one comment. But a pretty powerful one, in the context of a hearing in Congress. All official and totally on the record. Mullen basically said that the Haqqani network that organized symbolically significant attacks against US positions in Kabul is essentially an arm of Pakistani intelligence. This really means that Pakistan, ostensibly a US ally in the fight against radicals and insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, is essentially a double crosser. And this is not coming from a think tank analyst presenting a theory. This is coming from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who spent an inordinate amount of time shuttling back and forth from Washington to Islamabad, trying his very best to cultivate the critical relationship with Pakistan’s top military and intelligence brass.

No reaction

Now, you would think that this open, unequivocal statement to the US Congress would have caused a major political tremor. But no, it did not. Everybody knew that Mullen was just about done with his term as Chairman and therefore his strong words have simply been ignored. Secretary Leon Panetta, his boss at the Pentagon, said nothing. The White House and the Department of State essentially ignored the comment. A little while later Mullen had reverted to being a private citizen –and so all is magically forgotten.

And so it is. But it should not be. What these two senior policy makers, not known for bouts of insanity, said in separate but equally important occasions is really critical.

NATO is a joke

Gates declared what everybody knows but nobody dares to say publicly: NATO is a joke. And it is essentially beyond repair because the Europeans, pressed by other issues on debt and the economy, have no intention to seriously address the problem of puny military capabilities. What Gates said is really big stuff, as the Western Alliance has been the primary security arrangement for the US and Europe since 1949. If it is beyond repair, what are the consequences? What are we going to do next? These issues may very well be debated among Pentagon planners. But America has not been been given a sense of what is next on the agenda. And what will defenseless Europe do? Who knows.

Pakistan is no ally

Shifting to a different but equally crucial scenario, in the context of the US war in Afghanistan and the fight against Islamic radicals, Admiral Mullen affirmed that the US Pakistan relation, a central piece in the US strategy to contain and eventually defeat insurgents and radicals in Afghanistan, is also broken. The Pakistanis are double crossing us. They tell us one thing and then they arm or enable those who are keen to destabilize Afghanistan and the US role in that poor country’s security.

Again, this is big. If this is indeed so, and Mullen would have enough inside knowledge about the issue, America’s relationship with Islamabad is probably at such a low point that we can call it beyond repair. But have we seen any reassessment? Not in public. As in Secretary Gates’ case, Admiral Mullen was allowed to say his thing, only once, and then everybody said a polite good bye to the retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. No comment, no discussion prompted by what he said, on the record.

Gates and Mullen spoke, no reaction

In all this, what is truly worrisome is that that there is absolutely no public debate on the huge issues brought out in the open by these two seasoned and totally credible policy-makers. They said: “NATO is finished”. “Rapport with Pakistan totally damaged”. If they are correct, the implications of these statements are huge. But now that they are gone, on the surface at least, it is business as usual.

Nobody heard anything. Nobody remembers. Once again, the Emperor has no clothes. But we pretend the opposite. Not a good way to run this railway. This is American national security postures and policies we are talking about.

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