I haven’t formed much of an opinion, one way or the other, of our new Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. But I came away favorably impressed with his performance Sunday at the 43rd annual Munich Conference on Security, which I attended as part of the American delegation.
When Donald Rumsfeld was in charge of the Pentagon, his appearances at this yearly confab of trans-Atlantic movers and shakers inevitably sparked fireworks—most famously in 2003 when he made the case for war with Iraq and Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister*, broke into English to reply, “Excuse me, I am not convinced.” Rumsfeld grated on European sensibilities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but too often his rhetorical style could distract from the serious issues of the day. The best-known example was his 2003 comment dismissing the views of France and Germany as those of “Old Europe”—as opposed to the “New Europe” further to the east, which was more pro-American. Fairly or not, that sent the representatives of “Old Europe” through the roof.
Gates marked a break with his predecessor in his speech on Sunday, when he dismissed a long litany of “characterizations” that “belong in the past:” “The free world versus those behind the Iron Curtain. North versus South. East versus West, and I am told that some have even spoken in terms of ‘Old Europe’ versus ‘new.’” The crowd ate it up.
Gates’s deft touch was also on display when he refused to rise to the bait offered by the star speaker of the conference, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president—I am tempted to be more accurate and call him the Russian dictator—gave a jarringly bellicose address in which he railed against the United States for supposedly “illegal” and “unilateral” actions that were plunging the world into the “abyss of perpetual conflict.” Instead of matching Putin’s angry rhetoric with some of his own, Gates simply said, “As an old cold warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time. Almost.”
Thus Gates avoided making news—a trick Rumsfeld never mastered—and kept the focus where it belonged, on Putin’s remarks, which alarmed many of the Europeans in the room. The Secretary of Defense also showed an unexpected flair for humor, joking, for example, about how he had given up his old habit of “blunt speaking” because as president of Texas A&M he had been sent to “reeducation camp” in order to learn how to deal with the faculty.
It was a good start. Of course, in the long run, Gates will be judged not by how well he deals with conference delegates but by how well he deals with America’s enemies. And, unfortunately, winning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will prove a lot harder than winning over the crowd in Munich’s Bayerischer Hof hotel.
* The post originally described Fischer as defense minister.