As the presidential candidates bone up for their foreign-policy debate, they should study the speeches of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates, the CIA director under Bush pere, had happily moved on to the presidency of Texas A&M but was brought back to Washington to rescue defense policy from the mess Donald Rumsfeld made.
His levelheaded pragmatism has been a blessing after years of policy driven more by ideology than by realities on the ground.
Gates' sober outlook presents a sharp contrast to Sen. John McCain's emotional, shoot-from-the-hip approach to foreign policy. He strongly promotes the use of "soft power" tools abroad, as does Sen. Barack Obama. But Gates goes further in describing how to balance soft and hard power.
Particularly fascinating was a speech Gates gave last week in England at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Referring to Churchill's prescient warnings about Nazi Germany and rejection of appeasement, Gates noted that Munich is still constantly invoked to prove the need for preventive action. (That's certainly been the case with the Bush administration.)
But Munich, he said, can't be the only reference point "whenever crisis strikes or an adversary threatens." Gates recalled another history lesson, that of August 1914, the beginning of World War I, where "a combination of miscalculation, hubris, bellicosity, fear of looking weak, and a runaway nationalism led to a cataclysmic and unnecessary conflict."
His point: In today's world, with unprecedented challenges by terrorist networks and authoritarian states with oil, the next president can't afford to get trapped by either historical analogy. There has to be a balance "between too-eager embrace of the use of military force and an extreme aversion to it."
This may sound like (and is) common sense. But such common sense has been sorely missing in recent years. It's a quality that will be essential for the next president.
Two examples. First, Russia's recent behavior in Georgia. As Gates noted, although Russia seriously violated international norms, the Cold War has not returned. Russia's incursion will backfire in the long run; it scared the Europeans and even disturbed China, and sent foreign investors fleeing.
Therefore, Gates said, it's important "not to fall into a pattern of rhetoric or actions that create self-fulfilling prophecies." Sen. McCain's claim that "we are all Georgians" and call for expelling Russia from the G-8 fall, I believe, into that rhetorical category. So does loose talk about war with Moscow.
Not only Gates, but five former secretaries of state made a similar point on CNN last weekend. Republicans Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Colin Powell and Democrats Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher agreed we had to think strategically on how to deal with a difficult Russia, not tactically or emotionally; we have major strategic interests in U.S.-Russian cooperation.
In other words, there are better ways for America and Europe to deal with Russia than direct confrontation - or a rush to admit Georgia to NATO. For starters, why not use Europe's new anger at Russian behavior in Georgia to galvanize a united European energy policy that makes Europe less dependent on energy pipelines through Russia?
Second example: Iran. Gates said it was essential to avoid a situation "where we have only two bleak choices: confrontation or capitulation, 1914 or 1938."
He described those bleak choices in refreshingly blunt language: on the one hand, a nuclear Iran that could blackmail other countries in the region (note: he did not claim Iran would threaten America with nuclear weapons); on the other, "a costly and potentially catastrophic military intervention - the last thing the Middle East needs."
Avoiding those extremes would probably involve aggressive diplomacy offering Iran a choice between international acceptance or harsher sanctions. The three Republican ex-secretaries of state told CNN they backed direct talks with Iran at high levels. That in no way signifies approval of the disgusting rhetoric of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Beyond Iran, Gates urges a dramatic increase in the projection of U.S. "soft power": more reconstruction aid, more foreign service officers, and a global information network that could counteract the extensive Internet operations of terrorist groups. He says nonmilitary means are as essential to our national security as are "the guns and steel of the military" in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So when you listen to the debates, see which candidate sounds more Gates-like. This is not the moment for shrill rhetoric or calls for regime change. We need sanity and clear thinking - for a change.