Gates' Gutsy Farewell

The Defense Secretary departs the world stage with blunt warnings.

Defense Secretary Gates, due to step down at the end of this month, apparently wanted to go out speaking his mind. His around-the-world farewell tour has included visits to several US bases and major addresses to our allies in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Afghanistan. At every stop, he has made a point of reaffirming our commitment to our friends and alliances, while warning that after a decade of war and a rising debt, the US may not be able to maintain the same level of support that it previously supplied to meet security threats around the world.

The bluntness is unusual coming from a man known for his pragmatism and low-key management style at the Pentagon. His tenure - one of the most consequential for any secretary of defense in recent decades - has been marked by consensus building and an ability to work with a conservative like President Bush, as well as the liberal President Obama. He is leaving at an unsettling time when a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and massive defense cuts loom on the horizon.

His speech in Brussels last Friday was particularly harsh in its assessment of the state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is desperately searching for relevance in a changed world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The defense secretary was particularly galled by the “real possibility of collective military irrelevance,” due to the refusal of several member nations to increase their combat capabilities in order to reflect the needs of the alliance in Libya and especially Afghanistan. Unless alliance nations increase their participation in combat operations, Gates warned that NATO's future is "dim, if not dismal."

He criticized NATO nations for their lack of defense spending, pointing to the fact that in Libya, NATO is now running out of bombs after just 11 weeks. The US has had to increase its support substantially to make up for the deficient stockpiles of weapons, and Gates was incredulous that “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

He even raised the possibility that it may reach the point that the US might not see the need for a European alliance any longer. “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Without naming any nations specifically, Gates complained of a "two tiered" membership in NATO “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” He also scolded the alliance for being “apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”

In truth, while the lack of defense spending by Europeans is certainly a big part of the problem, it is the failure to define a new mission for the aging alliance that appears to be a stumbling block to unity. Should NATO be an alliance that stresses combat missions -- the US view -- or should it opt for “soft” power, like “humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks,” as Gates put it. The latter view is held by most European countries who have their own problems with debt and weak economies, and who also lack the national will to sustain casualties in combat operations like Afghanistan and Libya.

The test in the coming months will be how the alliance holds together when we begin to withdraw our combat forces from Afghanistan. Most NATO troops are not currently engaged in combat due to "national caveats" that prevent the alliance from putting their soldiers in harm's way. This led one Canadian officer to remark, "How many battalions does it take to protect Kabul airport?" Indeed, as an example, the bulk of Germany's 5,000 troops are attached to Provincial Reconstruction Teams in quiet provinces in the north of Afghanistan. Efforts to get nations like Germany, Spain, Turkey, and Italy to alter those caveats have proven unsuccessful. As Gates said in Brussels, it isn't a matter of nations refusing to participate as much as it is that they are incapable of doing so. “The military capabilities simply aren’t there,” he said.

Gates tenure at the Pentagon was surely a frustrating one at times. He was named in November, 2006 to replace Donald Rumsfeld who had lost credibility on Capitol Hill with both Democrats and Republicans. President Bush had offered him the position of director of National Intelligence in 2005, but he declined, choosing to remain as president of Texas A&M University.

A former director of the CIA, Gates has now served 8 presidents in various defense and foreign policy jobs. He was nominated largely because of his proven management skills, as well as the probability of smooth sailing during his Senate confirmation hearing. He was confirmed 95-2 and took office in December, 2005

Almost immediately, Gates was caught up in the raging debate over whether to send tens of thousands of more troops to Iraq in order to quell the violence raging at that time. He received high marks from many in Congress for his advocacy of the surge which proved to be a success. He presided over the first troop withdrawals from Iraq in 2008.

His retention by the Obama administration as defense secretary was a tribute to his popularity in Congress and his ability to build consensus among the Pentagon's military leadership. President Obama came to rely on his judgment, siding with him in the early days of his administration when the review of our involvement in Afghanistan split the White House between those who wanted to add thousands more troops and those who wanted to substantially reduce our presence there. Gates wanted more than the 30,000 troops the president eventually sent and cautioned against setting a deadline for withdrawal. But Gates had proven himself a team player in the Bush administration and he gave President Obama the same kind of support despite disagreeing with him.

While there have been some controversies during his tenure, including his firing of General McKiernan from command in Afghanistan in 2009 and scandalous conditions discovered at Walter Reed military hospital, the defense secretary has steered clear of major problems that might have distracted him from his duties.

Currently, Gates is warning against withdrawing our forces too quickly from Afghanistan. He told a soldier on his farewell to the troops in Afghanistan that "we've still got a ways to go and I just think we shouldn't let up on the gas too much at least for the next few months."

Gates supports the view that any reductions in troops this year should be minimal as we attempt to consolidate gains made in the field against the Taliban. But with the death of Osama bin Laden and the huge budget deficit being run by the government, pressure coming from both sides of the aisle might change that calculation. However, he believes that any cuts this year should be made up mostly of support personnel, telling reporters in Afghanistan that “I would try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on -- I think that’s a no-brainer." It may be self-evident, but war weariness among the voters and a nervous Congress that sees expenditures in Afghanistan as a prime area for budget cutting might make Gates' words moot.

The same could be said for cutting the defense budget. Gates has been charged by President Obama to trim another $400 billion in defense outlays over the next decade. This is on top of the $150 billion cut already. During a commencement address at Notre Dame University, Gates made it clear there was no substitute for the "hard power" supplied by the US military to deter aggressors and that our review of defense needs must keep in mind that "the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military," must not be compromised.

This is one battle that Gates will not have to fight. His successor, current CIA chief Leon Panetta, is far more pliant and is not expected to put up the same kind of fight Gates might have over budget cuts. Gates was impressed with Panetta's defense of agency personnel from Eric Holder's attempts to target agents who participated in interrogations. But Panetta is far more partisan and liberal than Gates and can be expected to carry water for Democrats in 2012.