Michael's Dispatches

Secretary Gates in Singapore

01 June 2009
Manila, Philippines

The Shangri-La security dialogue is over.  Bigwigs from all over the region came to the conference, including Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  All the major media outlets piled in, such as the New York Times, AP, and dozens of others from Asia, Europe, and the United States.  The dialogue is already well covered in the media, so I’ll write mostly about topics that likely will not make the press.

One matter that you will see in the press is that North Korea is the elephant in the room. Secretary Gates has made it clear that we have no intention of rewarding bad behavior, as we have done in the past with North Korea.  Many readers seem to hold a special disdain for President Obama, and I actively campaigned for McCain, but I get the feeling that Obama is tougher and proving wiser than many people seem to think.  I do not detect that we are slinking away from North Korea.  It seems as though we are going to have some sort of showdown, which hopefully will all be through diplomacy.  I heard Secretary Gates say that a nuclear armed North Korea is not in the cards.  (Not verbatim but that was the gist.)

I asked an extremely high defense official if he thought North Korea would attack the United States, and he said they are crazy, but not that crazy.  Judging by comments that I pick up here and there, it’s clear that our government views North Korea in the same light that most people do: the North Korean leadership is completely nuts.  That’s the patois, and it’s actually how American officials will sometimes put it.

On the political front, it’s fascinating that the United States is such a global matchmaker.  Many people think the world hates us, but I would say we have more allies than any nation has ever had in the history of mankind.  All of the countries represented here have good relations with the United States, but many or most have little or no relations with each other.  This is also true in the Gulf States in the Middle East.  The United States has to pull all these countries together just so they will talk with each other on defense issues.

The architecture of the relationships has been likened to a wheel.  The United States is the hub, and we have bilateral relations, like spokes, with just about everybody (other than a few countries such as North Korea, Iran and Cuba).  But the United States wants to be less of the hub and wants these folks to cooperate with each other.  So here we are: Global matchmaker.  And the senior folks here, including Secretary Gates, are making it clear that if we unite against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, we can work as a team with far greater horsepower.  So part of the talks have been centered around developing a common approach and a common message.  The particular talks that most interested me (between Japan, South Korea and the United States) were secret so I didn’t get in to hear, but I know that Secretary Gates had the Japanese and the South Koreans in the same room for about an hour.

The press covering the event is an interesting aside.  When I traveled with Secretary Gates in December (Afghanistan to Bahrain to Iraq to Turkey to the United States), there were maybe a dozen journalists with him, and lots more met us along the way.  Some of the journalists joked with me at first, asking if I was going to “blog” every step of the way.  Most fascinating is that that is exactly what they did.  They would rush to internet cafes to send quickly written stories, while I didn’t publish anything major until months later.  They were a very nice group of top journalists, but it really stunned me that they are actually more the true “bloggers.”  They got a laugh when I started calling them bloggers.  I remember one photographer running to our bus in Iraq, holding his laptop in one hand and his satellite antenna in the other, trying to transmit a few photos that he had shot only ten minutes earlier.

In Singapore, there must have been fifty or more journalists, and they were doing the paparazzi crush.  It’s bizarre to me because I rarely see this paparazzi stuff.  It’s like a feeding frenzy for the photographers and even a few of the writers.  The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and those types don’t crush into the frenzy.  They hang back and end up getting close access, like me.

I find that the journalists for places like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are actually very good with their facts.  They ask very smart questions, so I generally just sit there as the grey man and listen, and Gates will answer just about any reasonable question.  During off-the-record times, he’s actually very funny and would be a center of entertainment even if he were not the SecDef.

During this trip and the last, I listened closely to the journalists during their relaxed moments at cocktail parties and so forth.  (This is truly unlike combat reporting!)  Some of them travel with Gates on many trips, and I wanted to know what they really think about him.  The reviews are all positive.  The journalists think he’s a straight shooter.  And trust me, this is a rough crowd of top-dog, very experienced journalists who are sharp…they will crush anybody if they think they are being deceived.  Gates gets their seal of approval, though I sense at times that some journalists wish Gates would say things that make for more splashy press, or “color” as they put it.

Sunday: the airplane is broken down again so our trip to the Philippines is delayed.  But that’s fine because Secretary Gates and his people are very open with the media.  They’ll pretty much answer anything that’s not off limits for obvious reasons.  I have been asking a lot of people about the disposition of Libya’s mustard gas stocks, but nobody will touch that one.  (I did not ask Secretary Gates.)  There was some discussion (again, not with Secretary Gates) about the replacement of General McKiernan with McChrystal.  Bottom line is that, though I greatly respect McKiernan, Secretary Gates is a wise and experienced man, and he made the proper decision.

We have a shelf-life in Afghanistan, and it’s pretty doggone clear to me that we likely will start losing allies by the end of 2010 if we are not showing real and obvious progress in Afghanistan.  I understand why McChrystal is being called into the fight.  Most of the enemies in Afghanistan have no reason to negotiate because they know that they are winning.  They know it, and we know it.  So the bottom line is that there is a lot of killing to do.  We need to show the enemy that we can crush them.  They might be tough Afghans, but our folks are tougher, and our folks are far better fighters.  Most of the Taliban cannot even shoot straight.  Their big advantage – and it’s a huge advantage over us – is that they are on their home field.  I brought that up to a senior official, and he tantamount to confirmed that my estimation is correct.  McChrystal needs to show success over the next eighteen months.  If you are in a combat unit heading to Afghanistan, I would submit that you likely will see heavy fighting.  I would further submit that the most severe fighting in the entire Afghanistan campaign likely will unfold between now and late 2010.  You’ve got to put the Taliban and other enemies on the defense and you’ve got to hurt them very badly.  You’ve got to give the survivors a reason to lay down their arms and talk.  Otherwise, the enemy will win just by surviving.

I brought up Iraq with various knowledgeable folks (I’m not sure what is off and on the record sometimes, so must treat it all as off the record unless I’m sure).  The Iraq conversations have been interesting.  In broad strokes, I did not detect any deep concerns about Iraq like we saw in 2006-2007, but our folks definitely remain concerned.  Petraeus has often said that the gains are fragile and reversible.

Two Japanese journalists are on the trip.  Yoshinari Kurose is with the gigantic paper “The Yomiuri Shimbun,” and Hirotsugu Mochizuki writes for another gigantic paper called the “The Asahi Shumbun.”  Both live in Washington D.C., and both are extremely smart.  They are very concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles, and concerned about potential sabotage within Japan by North Korean operatives.  Both seem to very much enjoy the United States, but I told them they are crazy for living in Washington D.C.  It’s a complete madhouse.  I asked them what I ask many non-Americans: “What do the Japanese think about Obama?”  Yoshinari said that Obama is like a rock star in Japan.  I get a similar vibe in Brunei, Singapore and Thailand, but not in Israel, the Pakistanis are wary of Obama, and the Iraqis can be wary, too.  Many Iraqis are genuinely afraid that we will pull out too soon.  The Japanese journalists think that the Japanese people view Obama as the best thing since sliced bread.

Yoshinari brought up that he heard a rumor that Obama will visit Dresden, and it was clear that he hoped Obama would visit Hiroshima also. He thought the Japanese would receive the gesture very well, even if there is no apology.  Just a respectful visit.  But he thought that conservatives in the United States would be very unhappy if Obama visits Japan.  I told Hirotsugu and Yoshinari that the older generation who fought in World War II often hate the Japanese, but the younger Americans hold no animosity at all.  Not that I am aware of, anyway.  Japan has a good name in America.  Secretary Gates just thanked Japan for their help in the current war.  At some point, we just have to move on.  We’ll always remember Pearl Harbor, but at some point we’ve got to put that down and move on.

I talked a lot about torture with the Japanese.  Probably half of Asia still holds deep animosity toward the Japanese because they treated the people and the prisoners so savagely, and they know better than anyone how costly that can be.  They got paid back, at least in part, with two atomic bomb attacks, and with great numbers of people in Asia mistrusting them even today.  I asked the journalists if the Japanese are paying attention to our torture problems. They confirmed that the Japanese are well aware, and though the United States is very popular in Japan, this is a mark on our excellent name.  This and the Iraq war, though the Japanese did also help us with Iraq.  I see the same coming from places like Thailand, Singapore and Brunei.  All of these places have very good and positive relations with the United States, and Americans are especially welcome over here.  But the man on the street is pretty doggone disgusted that America – that shining beacon – sullied itself with torture.

I took a few minutes with well-placed American officials to bash senior Army Public Affairs Officers (PAO).  That’s obligatory for me these days.  I can’t meet with senior American officials without taking a swipe at senior Army PAOs.  Not USMC, just Army.  I’m happy as a bug to get out with American or British infantry, but the Army PAO (the senior ranks) should be purged.  The lower ranking PAOs maintain a high standard of excellence.  It’s their bosses who turn wine to vinegar just by walking in the room.

After this, it’s off to the Philippines and then back to the other war in PakAf.  Big battles are unfolding in Pakistan, and we cannot understand the Afghanistan war without understanding Pakistan.

Note: We landed in the Philippines and Secretary Gates headed straight to our war cemetery here, to honor our fallen and our missing.  The cemetery is extremely well cared-for and both American and Philippine soldiers took part in the ceremony.  Secretary Gates then went on into some private talks, and then he talked with soldiers.  The press was doing a kind of paparazzi crush at times.  The camera flashes were sometimes blinding.  There were approximately a hundred journalists present during his public talk.  Later, Secretary Gates was warmly received by the Philippine Secretary of Defense, Gilbert Teodoro.  Some American officials made clear to me during the trip that the United States greatly values our relationship with the Philippines.  The Philippine Army also gave me a warm welcome and some interesting private talks.  Secretary Gates got back on the airplane and is heading to meet up with some soldiers in Alaska.  I stayed behind in the Philippines to cover work of American Special Forces soldiers, Navy SEALs, and Philippine forces.

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