U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States must do a better and more consistent job of helping other countries provide for their own defenses. That was the theme of a speech he gave on Wednesday when he accepted an award for distinguished public service from the Nixon Center, a Washington research organization.
Secretary Gates told the audience of current and former diplomats, and experts on international affairs, that the U.S. government is not structured to provide security assistance of the right type, in the right quantities and within the right timeframe to meet today's challenges around the world.
"I believe our ability to help other countries better provide for their own security will be a key and enduring test of America's global leadership in the 21st century, and a critical part of protecting our own security," said Robert Gates.
Gates said U.S. government agencies are not structured to provide the kind of "flexible, responsive" aid that is needed, and he called for more cooperation among departments, particularly his own and the Department of State.
Gates also criticized the practice of cutting aid to countries when their governments do something that angers a U.S. president or the Congress.
"Convincing other countries and leaders to be a partner of the United States, often at political and physical risk, ultimately depends on proving that our own government is capable of being a reliable partner over time," he said. "To be blunt, that means we cannot cut off assistance and relationships every time a country does something we dislike or disagree with."
Secretary Gates often has lamented the U.S. decisions to freeze relations with Pakistan in the 1980s, and to largely ignore Afghanistan after the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989, among other examples.
In recent years, the U.S. military has made significant efforts to train new Iraqi and Afghan armies and police forces, and to improve the defense capabilities of friendly countries around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. One goal is to enable those states to prevent terrorist groups from finding safe havens in uncontrolled areas, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
During his speech, Gates noted in particular recent U.S. training and assistance efforts in Yemen and the Philippines, which he said achieved "real success."
But he acknowledged that even better organization and more funding of military aid programs will not necessarily be as effective as Americans might like.
"Everything we do must be suffused with strong doses of modesty and realism," said Gates. "When all is said and done, there are limits to what even the United States can do to influence the direction of countries and cultures radically different than our own."
Gates has spoken before about the value of helping other countries maintain stability to reduce the need for U.S. troop deployments to troubled areas. According to the secretary, only a steady, long term and agile program has a chance of achieving that.