Sunday, August 19 , 2018, 6:49 pm | Fair 72º

 
 
 
 

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Robert Gates Issues a Call for Engagement, Bipartisanship in a World Fraught with Peril

At Westmont President's Breakfast, former defense secretary points to China as one of biggest U.S. challenges — and opportunities

Deeply immersed in U.S. intelligence and defense policies for more than four decades, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has faced his share of foreign-policy challenges.

As keynote speaker at the Seventh Annual Westmont President’s Breakfast on Friday, Gates provided both an insider’s perspective and an outsider’s objectivity as he crisply walked the 1,000 guests through the myriad of perilous crises the United States is confronting today — here and abroad.

From 2006 to 2011, Gates served as defense secretary for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, the first defense secretary to serve presidents of different political parties. His tenure at the Pentagon spanned the transition from the post-9/11 era of pursuing a vigorous defense to prevent another terrorist attack on U.S. soil to the wind-down of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Looking forward, he counseled caution.

“Protecting our home requires offense abroad,” he said. “We must attack our enemies on their 10-yard line and not on our 10-yard line, or worse, on our goal line.”

Still, he acknowledged that Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as Pakistan — must be responsible for their destinies.

“We cannot afford a premature rush for the exits,” he said of Pakistan, a hot-and-cold U.S. ally whose actions he admitted have been “frustrating and even infuriating.”

Pakistan apparently allowed the world’s most wanted terrorist, al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, to live unmolested in a small town in the shadow of a major military garrison — until U.S. forces tracked him down and killed him last year.

Although Gates said it was risky for U.S. troops to leave Iraq before the country was stabilized, the fact that Iraq’s future “is truly up to the Iraqis” is a good thing on several levels.

“As messy as its politics are, Iraq is the Arab world’s only true democracy,” he said with satisfaction.

With “strongman” Arab governments toppling throughout the Middle East and Iran again making threatening gestures, Gates warned that there is only so much the West can do to influence events there.

“The Middle East has no native building blocks for democracy,” he said. “The outcome will play out over time, and no outsider can do anything.”

Iran’s militancy is a major cause for concern and there’s no easy solution, he said.

“An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a catastrophe,” said Gates, referring to military action taken either by the United States or Israel. “But if there is no attack and Iran is allowed to continue developing nuclear weapons, we would face a far greater catastrophe.”

Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, one of the world’s hardest challenges is China and its growing wealth and power. Since the United States was left standing as the lone superpower after the West’s victory in the Cold War, China’s leadership has aggressively sought to assert its influence — economically and militarily.

“Why are China’s leaders so paranoid?” Gates asked before listing a number of alarming reasons.

» With a population of more than 1.3 billion, China requires an annual growth rate of at least 9 percent in its gross-domestic product and the creation of more than 20 million new jobs each year.

» The country’s decades-long one-child policy has caused a demographic challenge with an aging population.

» China’s middle class — at 300 million a population equal to that of the United States — is growing restless and wants more freedom and power.

» Simmering unrest in rural areas that has exploded in violence.

Gates was optimistic that China and the United States could work together as respectful allies but he was clear about how to achieve that objective.

“There is no fundamental reason for China and the United States to be enemies, but if we treat it as such, it will be,” he said.

Having served in the administrations of eight presidents dating back to Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s, Gates had a few domestic political observations, too. He opened his remarks at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort with a joke that “Washington is a place where those who travel the high road of humility encounter little traffic.”

In closing, he pointed out that America’s political class “must show true leadership” at this time in the country’s history. He identified the gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts into safe seats for either political party as a particularly ruinous practice for political discourse and the nation’s center. California voters, he said, are to be congratulated for taking the redistricting responsibility away from the Legislature.

Gates called for a return to bipartisanship in policy and in the executive and legislative branches of government. Using the Cold War as an example, he emphasized that the shared goal of victory was a constant through nine presidential administrations.

“When one party wins big in a wave election, and there have been several in the last few years, rule by brute force is often imposed by the victors,” he said. “More humility in victory is called for.

“Compromise has become a dirty word,” he added, before reminding his audience that “all of our Founding Fathers created our country and our Constitution through compromise.”

In addition to his time as defense secretary, Gates, 68, is a former CIA director, a former president of Texas A&M University and served for 10 years as president of the National Eagle Scout Association. Earlier this month, he took over as chancellor of the College of William & Mary, his alma mater.

As is the custom after the President’s Breakfast, Gates was headed up to the Westmont College campus for a panel discussion with students. Westmont President Gayle Beebe said Gates was looking forward to the appearance.

“I love talking to students,” Beebe joked that Gates told him, “because they ask questions that they really want to know the answers to.”

The Westmont President’s Breakfast has the highest profile of the Westmont Foundation’s work on behalf of the school and the community. Launched in 1997 with the leadership of philanthropist Larry Crandell, the foundation also hosts the Westmont Downtown lecture series and provides student scholarships. Among this year’s Westmont Foundation Scholars are Westmont students Matthew Annand, a San Marcos High School graduate; Kaci Mexico, a Santa Ynez Valley Union High School graduate; Nicole Provost, a graduate of Righetti High School in Santa Maria; and Micah Whitcomb of Ventura.

Beebe gave the opening remarks Friday and was introduced by Gerd Jordano, the longtime chairwoman of the President’s Breakfast Committee who is retiring this year after seven years at the helm, and Westmont Foundation board chairman Brad Frohling, himself a Westmont alumnus.

The Rev. Peter Buehler, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara, gave the invocation, and the Westmont College Choir, under the direction of Michael Shashberger, sang a trio of patriotic songs: “God Bless America,” “When Storms Arise” and “America the Beautiful.”

Lead sponsor of Friday’s breakfast was Santa Barbara Bank & Trust. Other sponsors included Anodos, Axia, Davies, HUB International, Jo and Carl Lindros, Matt Construction, Melchiori Construction Co., Melchiori Management Group LLC, Montecito Institute, Rabobank, V3 Corp. and Northern Trust.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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