Gates leaves legacy of achieve­ments, con­tra­dic­tions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates left of­fice June 30 pop­u­lar with the lib­eral Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment, but not so with con­ser­va­tives chafed by his bud­get cut­ting and his en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port for open ho­mo­sex­u­als in the ranks.

In some ways, Mr. Gates’ 4 1/2-year ten­ure un­der two pres­i­dents was one of big achieve­ments but stark con­tra­dic­tions.

He shep­herded a surge of com­bat troops in Iraq un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, then did the same un­der Pres­i­dent Obama in Afghanistan. Yet he de­liv­ered a ma­jor pol­icy ad­dress at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy in which he said any fu­ture de­fense sec­re­tary who rec­om­mends such wars should “have his head ex­am­ined.”

Mr. Gates opened the door to bud­get cuts through weapons ter­mi­na­tions two years ago, in­clud­ing the Air Force’s most ad­vanced fighter and the Marine Corps’ next am­phibi­ous fight­ing ve­hi­cle. He also wants $100 bil­lion in Pen­tagon sav­ings and, with his 2012 bud­get, put the brakes on an­nual de­fense bud­get in­creases af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks. The $670 bil­lion plan is $38 bil­lion be­low last year’s pro­posal.

To­day, Mr. Gates is warn­ing about the cuts he started, as the White House eyes $400 bil­lion in ad­di­tional re­duc­tions af­ter he leaves Wash­ing­ton.

“I be­lieve Bob Gates is likely to be re­mem­bered as the man who en­abled the very thing he’s warn­ing against right now, namely, dra­matic cuts in the mod­ern­iza­tion of our forces, the hol­low­ing out of the United States mil­i­tary and a weak­en­ing of the United States to pro­ject power and be a cred­i­ble ally in an in­creas­ingly dan­ger­ous world,” said Frank Gaffney, who di­rects the pro-de­fense Cen­ter for Se­cu­rity Pol­icy.

“This is the irony of his now Ham­let-es­que warn­ings. Much of this is a di­rect re­sult of his own ten­ure, not just what’s go­ing to come next. Barack Obama got the po­lit­i­cal cover that Bob Gates pro­vided.”

Lib­eral me­dia love him

But Mr. Gates, a for­mer CIA di­rec­tor who re­luc­tantly re­turned to Wash­ing­ton to re­place the be­lea­guered Don­ald H. Rums­feld in 2006, has many fans in town.

The lib­eral me­dia have lav­ished praise for his sup­port of re­peal­ing the ban on ho­mo­sex­u­als serv­ing openly in the mil­i­tary and for not be­ing Mr. Rums­feld, who reg­u­larly chided the press.

It was Mr. Gates who over­saw the dar­ing Navy SEAL mis­sion that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pak­istan.

“He prob­a­bly gets the high­est rat­ing of any de­fense sec­re­tary in liv­ing mem­ory,” said Loren B. Thompson, who di­rects the probusi­ness Lex­ing­ton In­sti­tute.

“I think Gates is prob­a­bly as good as it gets. The sin­gle most im­por­tant thing is he presided over a re­ver­sal of strat­egy in Iraq that averted de­feat. Now many peo­ple will tell you Gates should not get all or most of the credit sav­ing Amer­ica in Iraq. But the fact of the mat­ter is when he showed up, we were los­ing.”

Mr. Thompson said Mr. Gates’ legacy goes be­yond war. Mr. Gates be­gan de­flat­ing a bal­loon­ing Pen­tagon bu­reau­cracy that was wast­ing too much money, an es­pe­cially trou­ble­some bur­den as Wash­ing­ton grap­ples with a debt cri­sis.

“He be­gan the process of re­duc­ing waste in the sys­tem,” Mr. Thompson said. “Af­ter eight years of the Bush buildup, there was a lot of un­nec­es­sary spend­ing go­ing on. Gates at least be­gan the process of iden­ti­fy­ing where cuts could be made. Gates’ fix­ing the Pen­tagon was kind of like [Pres­i­dent] Nixon go­ing to China. He had the cred­i­bil­ity among hawks to make cuts and make changes.”

The de­fense sec­re­tary also growled at the bu­reau­cracy to make it more re­spon­sive. Early in his ten­ure, for ex­am­ple, he scolded the Army for slow­ness in de­ploy­ing the Mine Re­sis­tant Am­bush Pro­tected (MRAP) ve­hi­cle that re­pels deadly road­side bombs.

“He forced the sys­tem to be more re­spon­sive to war fight­ers on a num­ber of fronts, from un- manned air­craft to wounded war­riors. Gates forced the sys­tem to change, and he made heads roll,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Gates showed a will­ing­ness to top­ple top brass. He fired the Air Force chief of staff and the civil­ian sec­re­tary for fail­ing to main­tain ad­e­quate con­trols on nu­clear weapons.

He de­nied Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, a strong Rums­feld ally, the cus­tom­ary sec­ond twoyear term as chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He fired his Afghanistan com­man­der and then sup­ported the dis­missal of the next com­man­der, Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal, who made con­tro­ver­sial com­ments to Rolling Stone mag­a­zine.

“I some­times felt he was a lit­tle too free in fir­ing peo­ple,” Mr. Thompson said. “The fact is, you fire peo­ple and you get the at­ten­tion of ev­ery­one who is left. I don’t see any­thing in the Gates ten­ure that we’ll look back and re­gret. ‘Great’ and ‘de­fense sec­re­tary’ usu­ally don’t go to­gether in the same sen­tence. But Bob Gates is as good as it gets.”

Mixed re­views

Not all de­fense hawks like Mr. Gates. One of his first ut­ter­ances in of­fice was that mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram was all but off the ta­ble. In the on­go­ing Libyan cam­paign, he told Congress there was no chance U.S. ground forces would be used. Crit­ics say he should not have taken mil­i­tary op­tions off the ta­ble.

In April, Mr. Obama es­sen­tially dou­bled the ante on de­fense cuts by say­ing he wants $400 bil­lion more to the year 2023. Mr. Gates gave gen­eral ap­proval but then seemed to break with the White House by warn­ing against cuts that ham­string the mil­i­tary’s global reach.

“I’m ap­pre­cia­tive he is now do­ing these sorts of warn­ings. But where has he been for the last three or four years?” said Mr. Gaffney, a se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cial dur­ing the mil­i­tary buildup un­der Pres­i­dent Rea­gan.

Repub­li­cans, led by Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona, the rank­ing mem­ber on the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, adamantly op­posed Mr. Gates’ en­dorse­ment of end­ing the ban on ac­knowl­edged ho­mo­sex­u­als.

Re­tired Gen. James T. Conway, a for­mer com­man­dant of the Marine Corps, was the most vo­cal op­po­nent of re­peal­ing the ban among the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also saw Mr. Gates kill the Marine Corps’ prized Ex­pe­di­tionary Fight­ing Ve­hi­cle land­ing craft.

To­day, eight months into re­tire­ment, Gen. Conway told The Wash­ing­ton Times that he has great ad­mi­ra­tion for Mr. Gates, es­pe­cially the way he looked af­ter the troops.

“I think it’s in­cred­i­ble he served two ad­min­is­tra­tions equally well,” he said. “He was a sec­re­tary of de­fense at war for the en­tire pe­riod, and I think he’ll go down in his­tory as one of the finest peo­ple to man up the of­fice. He un­der­stood the is­sues al­most from the get-go. He worked very closely with his mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers. I think he re­al­ized prob­lem sets as they oc­curred or in some cases be­fore they oc­curred.”

Gen. Conway cited Mr. Gates’ per­sonal in­volve­ment in push­ing the Army to field more MRAPs to save lives.

“What I liked about him was that his gut in­stincts were tremen­dous, and his No. 1 pri­or­ity on those list of in­stincts was the wel­fare of the troops,” he said.

Gen. Conway said Mr. Gates typ­i­cally be­gan a meet­ing by tak­ing off his suit coat in a ges­ture that it was time to get down to work. He said the de­fense sec­re­tary liked to in­sert an anec­dote or two “to keep things light.”

“He was very lik­able. [. . . ] He would not al­ways agree with you, but he wanted to hear you out,” Gen. Conway said.

On ho­mo­sex­u­als and the ter­mi­na­tion of the fight­ing ve­hi­cle, Gen. Conway said, “You can’t pick up all your mar­bles and go home sim­ply be­cause you don’t win ev­ery ar­gu­ment.”

He said the Pen­tagon re­mains com­mit­ted to some type of new land­ing ve­hi­cle.

Fi­nal thoughts

Mr. Gates now is back­track­ing from his “head ex­am­ined” re­mark that dom­i­nated press cov­er­age of his West Point speech ded­i­cated to the Army’s fu­ture. Some con­ser­va­tives in­ter­preted the re­mark as rul­ing out any fu­ture land war in the Mid­dle East un­der any con­di­tion.

“We were at­tacked out of Afghanistan,” Mr. Gates told CNN re­cently. “And in a way, if I had it all to do over again, I prob­a­bly would have used dif­fer­ent word­ing at West Point, be­cause if the United States is di­rectly threat­ened, I will be the first in line to say we should use mil­i­tary force and that we should do so with all the power that we have avail­able to us.”

Mr. Gates paid a farewell visit last month to the troops in Afghanistan.

“There are many as­pects to this job. The only thing that I’ll miss is the peo­ple that I work with and, above all, the op­por­tu­nity to in­ter­act with the troops,” he told “Fox News Sun­day.”

“I just spent three days with them in Afghanistan a week and a half ago, and get­ting on that plane was ver y hard. Leav­ing them be­hind and still in the fight. They’re so ded­i­cated and so con­fi­dent, and they’re so ca­pa­ble. They’re just ex­tra­or­di­nary peo­ple.”

On CNN, he gave a fi­nal warn­ing:

“There are clearly go­ing to be some cuts in things that I care about. But the United States has global in­ter­ests. We’ve had global in­ter­ests for a cen­tury and a half. The United States has been a global power since late in the 19th cen­tury. We have in­ter­ests. We have al­lies. We have part­ners. We have a bad his­tory. When we turn in­ward, we end up in a re­ally big war.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Farewell to the troops: De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates made his fi­nal of­fi­cial visit with troops in Afghanistan this month. “Get­ting on that plane was ver y hard. Leav­ing them be­hind and still in the fight,” he said June 26. “They’re so ded­i­cated and so con­fi­dent, and they’re so ca­pa­ble. They’re just ex­traor­di­nar y peo­ple.”

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