The slow-motion retirement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who recently announced his intention to step aside at the end of 2011, offers a chance to take stock of his time at the helm of the Pentagon. It’s been an important, if imperfect, tenure. But Gates deserves credit and thanks for his sense of duty and commitment to something greater than self, namely, the country he has served for 45 years.
Any recap of Gates’ tenure has to begin and end with that sense of duty. It pays to recall that he took over at the Pentagon in the midst of a war that was spiraling out of control, against the howling headwinds unleashed by his predecessor’s controversial style and consequential decisions, and after the commander-in-chief had suffered a stinging defeat in the 2006 midterms. And then, when a new commander-in-chief with a new direction asked, Gates stayed on.
In a recent Foreign Policy profile, Gates explained, “I really didn’t want to be asked” to stay after President Obama’s victory. That’s because he knew if he were asked, he would not say no. “In the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, ‘No.’”
It’s difficult to see how saying yes—either time—was self-serving.
The Bush-Obama handoff, in the middle hour of two wars, wasn’t fumbled, in large part, because of Gates, who carried out the successful surge strategy in Iraq and then helped plan the revised mission for Afghanistan.
It’s somewhat ironic that the surge happened under Gates. After all, he had been a part of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) before accepting President Bush’s call to return to Washington. And in 2006, the ISG was advocating something different than Bush’s troop surge. In fact, the commission called on the White House to launch a comprehensive diplomatic offensive to deal with the problems of Iraq, urged the president to “engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues” and tried to tether Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Declaring that “Military priorities in Iraq must change, with the highest priority given to the training, equipping, advising, and support mission and to counterterrorism operations,” the commission’s realist wise men concluded that “The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing.”
Gen. Petraeus proved otherwise, and Gates gave him the tools and time to do so.
On Afghanistan, Gates talked tough—and meant it—about the halfhearted commitment of many of America’s NATO allies. “We must not—we cannot—become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” he bluntly warned, adding that most NATO troops are simply “not trained in counterinsurgency,” which is the kind of war NATO is fighting in Afghanistan.
Trying to be a good soldier, Gates appeared to do rhetorical gymnastics in defending Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). “If a non-nuclear-weapon state is in compliance with the nonproliferation treaty and its obligations,” Gates explained, “the U.S. pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against it.” Instead, such an enemy “would face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response”—even if that enemy “were to use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies or partners.” Gates then conceded that Obama’s NPR had removed the “calculated ambiguity” that had kept America’s enemies on notice and off balance for decades—and, not coincidentally, kept America and American forces safe from nuclear, biological or chemical attack.
Even so, Gates was not a yes man. For example, he called on Congress to pass legislation to prevent Gitmo detainees from being transferred into the United States.
Lately, Gates has shifted his focus to ending what he calls “the culture of endless money that has taken hold” inside the Pentagon. Although the military was the beneficiary of healthy infusions of cash after 9⁄11, the Pentagon’s top man has challenged his charges to do something the rest of Washington hasn’t been asked to do: spend less and spend smarter.
Specifically, Gates wants to cut defense spending “around $10 billion” in 2012 and up to $15 billion in follow-on years. Coincidentally, a congressionally-appointed panel proposes $1.1 trillion in defense cuts over the next decade, slashing weapons systems like the V-22 Osprey, eliminating up to 200,000 combat troops and mothballing 57 warships. Gates himself halted F-22 production at 187 planes, far short of the Air Force request of 381.
“Should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters…when America’s military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds? Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined?” he asks. “Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”
It’s a reasonable point. But it seems to sidestep an equally reasonable point: the notion that overwhelming firepower and cutting-edge technology serve to prevent what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
In other words, the value of a squadron of stealth bombers, a fleet of super-carriers, a constellation of satellites and space sensors, an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ICBMs or a full quiver of F-22s is in their capacity not only to deter rising powers, but to deter them from even trying to challenge American power or the global order supported by that power.
Such dominance is costly, to be sure, but not as costly as enduring another cold war or waging a third world war. If history is any guide, we can expect to expend 6-10 percent of our GDP annually, rather than the current 3-4 percent, waging a full-blown cold war with a near-peer competitor like China. And the human and material costs of another global war—the kind that kills millions, the kind that destroys nations, the kind that we haven’t seen in 65 years—are unimaginable.
Of course, Gates knows this. He’s spent virtually his entire adult life positioning the U.S. to win the Cold War, preventing another world war and, since 2006, waging a war on terrorism. It’s unlikely his successor will be anywhere near as qualified.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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