George Shultz and Robert Gates Offer Advice to the Biden/Harris Administration

We have been seeing the stories for weeks now. Former government officials and influencers of all political persuasions have been giving President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris lots of advice. Suggestions include whom to hire, which policies to pursue, and even how to decorate a Cabinet secretary’s office.

George Shultz celebrated his 100th birthday last month. The former treasury secretary in the Nixon administration told a virtual audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace that he had shared an idea in a note to incoming Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Dr. Shultz said that he described the portrait of Alexander Hamilton that hangs in the treasury secretary’s office.

In the painting, America’s very first secretary of the treasury has his hand out. “I got a lot of mileage out of that,” Dr. Shultz chuckled.

His attempt at humor was the rare moment of levity in the think tank and nongovernmental organization meetings I have attended of late. Overall, the consensus is that America and the world are facing a perilous moment in history, and Mr. Biden’s team is facing a critical mission to restore the U.S. reputation for integrity, compassion, and toughness.

Similar advice from experienced statesmen

While wishing Mr. Biden well, Dr. Shultz urged the president-elect and his incoming foreign policy advisers to avoid making empty threats, warning “never point a rifle unless you’re willing to pull the trigger.”

His caution echoed the views of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In the final chapter of his new book, “Exercise of Power,” Dr. Gates passes along advice given to Gen. George Marshall and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower by their World War I mentor, Maj. Gen. Fox Conner: “Never fight unless you have to, never fight alone, and never fight for long.”

When I asked him about the quote, Dr. Gates warned that democracies can sustain wartime sacrifices for only a limited period. He observed that Americans have opposed every war except the first three years of World War II, and by the fall of 1944, even Franklin Roosevelt was facing “war fatigue” on the homefront. It’s a phenomenon that we’re seeing right now in the war against COVID-19. War fatigue is also a factor in the current administration’s efforts to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

A defense secretary across political parties

Dr. Gates holds a unique place in American history. As secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011, he is the only person to serve in that position under presidents from different political parties.

On Nov. 17, 2020, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Gates when I hosted the first Virtual Gala of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Dr. Gates was presented with NCAFP’s prestigious Hans J. Morgenthau Award. Previous recipients have included Mr. Biden, Dr. Shultz, and Henry Kissinger, who launched the gala with taped congratulations for Dr. Gates.

I talked with Dr. Gates just a few hours after President Donald Trump announced plans to halve the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The news worried him, in part because of risks to the remaining American forces from extremists in both countries. Indeed, just hours after the announcement, there were rocket attacks near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Dr. Gates also expressed concern that the withdrawal would leave billions of dollars of unprotected U.S. equipment behind, all because the decision to leave was so hasty.

Calling for repair and reform

Dr. Gates stressed that from January 2001 until he retired in July 2011 there were just two defense secretaries. He lamented the rapid turnover and short tenures of his multiple successors in the nine years since, which has harmed their ability “to reform or manage or lead” because of their inability to establish credibility within the military. “It’s time to repair this constant turnover,” he concluded.

Dr. Gates named other relationships that President-elect Biden will need to repair. He listed international groups, like the World Health Organization, as well as the U.S. intelligence community, an organization Dr. Gates knows well, given his leadership of the CIA during the George H.W. Bush administration. He also called for reforms within the State Department, which, he said, “has faced the same hollowing out as the civilian forces within the Pentagon.”

Overall, Dr. Gates called for the restructuring and reform of a strategic framework. For the sake of America’s security, he said the U.S. needs to act in a strategically coherent manner. And the first step is to repair relationships with America’s allies, relationships that have been damaged during the last four years. “That’s the United States’ unique strength,” he said, observing that “Russia and China have no allies, just client states.”

An appreciation for young people

It was a sobering conversation, but we ended on an uplifting note. Over the last 15 years, Dr. Gates has toggled between public service and leadership roles at Texas A&M University and William & Mary, his alma mater. I wondered if faculty fights reminded him of disagreements within the Pentagon. He laughed and said no. The common thread was and remains the young people with whom he is in contact

This column first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

Jacqueline Adams is an Emmy Award winning journalist. She is the co-author of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store