Robert Gates’ newly announced plan to retire sometime in 2011 has set off a new round of adulatory and fawning press coverage. In a lengthy feature piece, for instance, Foreign Policy magazine’s Fred Kaplan extols Gates as “the transformer” and “the most revolutionary Pentagon leader since Robert McNamara.”
Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria agrees. Gates, he argues, is “a genuine conservative in Eisenhower’s tradition.” He is courageously facing down the dreaded “military-industrial complex.”
By all accounts, Gates is a good and decent man and a dedicated public servant. But his reputation has been inflated and burnished by the media because the media mostly agree with him. Indeed, they like the fact that he has been trying to cut the defense budget and “reform” the Pentagon; and they like the fact that he is pushing to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibits openly gay military service.
Gates also benefits because his predecessor is conservative Donald Rumsfeld; and his likely successor will be a more liberal Obama political appointee.
Rumsfeld, of course, presided over the troubled Iraq War (pre-surge) and had strained relations with the military’s senior officer corps. Gates, by contrast, had the good fortune to preside over the surge and has fostered more cordial relations with the military leadership.
Thus, when compared to Rumsfeld, Gates looks very good. He looks more moderate and reasonable. And certainly, he’ll look more moderate and reasonable than his liberal political appointee successor.
But style points aside, a more objective assessment of Gates’ tenure as defense secretary is far less flattering than the media would have us believe. For the good that he has done has mostly not been his doing; but the bad that he has done bears his signature.
For example, prior to becoming defense secretary, Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group, which opposed a surge in U.S. forces there, and which urged instead an American withdrawal from Iraq. Such was the conventional wisdom.
Of course, Bush defied the conventional wisdom. He ordered a surge of U.S. forces. The media vilified Bush for this decision, depicting him as stupidly stubborn. Nonetheless, the president stuck to his guns; and the rest, as they say, is history. Bush’s gamble worked; the surge succeeded; and Iraq was won.
Gates didn’t show any real leadership here; he simply was a good company man. He respected Bush’s decision and carried out his orders by administering the surge, which he had first opposed.
Much the same thing happened with the more recent surge in Afghanistan. Candidate Obama had promised to strengthen and invigorate the U.S. war effort there and was looking for a way to make good on his campaign pledge.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military, after fumbling around in Afghanistan for seven years, finally and belatedly realized that it had adopted the wrong strategy. It had foolishly adopted a more conventional military strategy in the face of a growing Afghan insurgency.
But buoyed by its success in Iraq, the U.S. military soon came to embrace counterinsurgency warfare instead; and it told the new president that therein lays victory. Gates and Obama agreed because, short of forfeiting the war, this really was the only option available to them. (And I predict that if they stay with it, both men ultimately will be hailed as the leaders of the successful war in Afghanistan.)
Similarly, Gates is hailed as someone who forced the Pentagon to focus less on potential military threats like China and more on current conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. This is true insofar as it goes; however, it really doesn’t go very far.
In fact, by the time Gates took over as defense secretary, the U.S. military recognized that it was involved in a “long war” that would not end anytime soon. It realized that it needed to do more and work faster for our deployed troops overseas. After all, urgent needs statements from in theater were filling Pentagon in-boxes and raising congressional concerns.
Gates recognized this development and gave it his formal imprimatur as defense secretary. He then reaped the public relations whirlwind for “forcing” the Pentagon to start doing more for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this sense, there was widespread support within the U.S. military to focus less on exotic weapon systems and more on gear and equipment that can help our soldiers and Marines today. That’s one reason you didn’t hear much of a hue and cry within the military when Gates canceled the F-22 fighter jet, which had never been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
But Gates erred by eliminating and cutting ground-force modernization programs like Future Combat Systems, vehicular upgrades, and soldier networking initiatives. At a time when America is immersed in two ground wars this makes no sense. It makes even less sense when you realize that future conflicts almost certainly will be ground-intensive and thus will require the presence of American soldiers and Marines.
Indeed, as the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. James N. Mattis, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in a June 1, 2009 speech:
“The idea that we are going to be able to fight future wars without having soldiers on the ground, or just having a few special forces — I think that’s a pipedream… High-performing small [ground combat] units,” Mattis declared, “are now a national imperative.”
Mattis is absolutely right. Unfortunately, the defense budget doesn’t reflect this reality, and the reason why is simple: Gates has agreed to an artificially constrained total defense budget, which is projected to decline to just three percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) — an historic low at a time of war.
Of course, to be fair, this is not Gates’ decision necessarily; it is Obama’s. And, truth be told, Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have conspired with the president to cut the defense budget.
Still, Gates has used his enormous political clout and prestige to effect Obama’s defense cuts, and they are massive in scope: Indeed, according to Kaplan, “Gates’ office calculates that his cuts will have saved a [cumulative] $330 billion.”
Then, too, there is Gates’ elimination of Joint Forces Command to help save $100 billion in supposed “administrative overhead” within the next five years.
Each of these budget cuts can be justified individually perhaps; but taken together they point to the declining importance of the U.S. military and of military preparedness in the early 21st century. And these budgetary decisions will have profound and deleterious strategic and tactical consequences.
Strategically, the cuts will force the United States to be less assertive internationally. Our military, after all, won’t have the same reach and ability that it once did. And tactically, the cuts will force our soldiers and Marines to assume more operational risk — and therefore, more casualties if and when they are deployed in the future. But of course, policymakers will be less inclined to deploy our troops if they fear higher casualties.
All of this doesn’t make Bob Gates a bad man. It simply makes him a company man. An unusually good and popular company man.
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