Mr. Gates’s Farewell

Commentary Magazine

September 2011

Robert Gates left his job as secretary of defense at the end of June to virtually universal hosannas. Retrospectives of his four and a half years in office invariably noted he was the first defense secretary to serve presidents of two different parties. That he was able to become a central member of the Obama administration after having held senior posts in the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations is, if nothing else, a tribute to the survival skills of this career government bureaucrat who got his start as a lowly CIA analyst on the Soviet desk in the 1960s. A certified Washington “wise man” of the old school, he provided not only veteran counsel but also bipartisan cover for President Obama, who came into office with little background or credibility on defense issues.

He ended his tenure at the Pentagon as one of the most effective defense secretaries in American history. Yet, for all his achievements, major questions remain about his legacy, as he himself acknowledged in an extraordinary and unprecedented series of speeches and interviews he gave on his way out of office. By the end of his service, Gates had managed the difficult feat of putting himself at odds not only with Obama but also with many conservatives—while earning the respect of both. In order to evaluate his sometimes scathing critique of national-security policy, we must first glance at his tenure.

Gates started strong, in no small part because he took office at such a low point: he was sworn in at the end of 2006 when the U.S. armed forces appeared to be on the verge of their biggest defeat since Vietnam. His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, had been discredited, along with our most senior generals, for pursuing wrong-headed policies in Iraq—including their insistence that no more troops were needed. For his part, Gates was not an initial supporter of the surge strategy that called for an increase in U.S. troop levels to an eventual peak of 170,000. He had served as a member of the august Iraq Study Group, which had been commissioned by Congress to find a way out of the Iraq morass; it emphasized the need for a diplomatic surge, not a troop surge, in its December 2006 report.

Whatever his private doubts, Gates implemented the surge without any second-guessing (at least none that leaked) and went on to reap some of the reward when violence declined by more than 90 percent. More of the credit belonged to President Bush and his commanders on the ground, Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, but Gates did his part by protecting Petraeus and Odierno from Beltway backstabbers—both civilian and military. He also cut through red tape to rush into production unmanned aerial vehicles and heavy-duty armored vehicles known as MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), which vastly enhanced military capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and saved the lives of many troops.

Early on Gates made clear that he would be an active manager of the Pentagon, not just a caretaker. After the Washington Post uncovered a scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in February 2007, Gates moved swiftly to rectify the problems by firing the facility’s commander, Major General George W. Weightman. This was followed by the firing of the Army secretary, Francis Harvey, and the Army surgeon general, Kevin Kiley, for not acting quickly enough to clean up the mess.

Just a few months later, in June 2007, Gates announced that he would not nominate Marine General Peter Pace to a customary second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The cited reason was congressional opposition, but Pace was widely perceived as a weak leader who had been complicit with Rumsfeld in the mismanagement of the Iraq war. Pace’s replacement, Admiral Michael Mullen, emerged in Pace’s wake as a strong chairman who will retire later this year having championed the policies that made it possible to arrest the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan. Even more dramatically, in March 2008, Gates fired Admiral William “Fox” Fallon, head of Central Command, after Fallon made comments critical of the Bush administration in Esquire. (Fallon had also been a thorn in Petraeus’s side, trying to abort the surge before it had been fully implemented.)

Gates acted just as firmly when the Air Force admitted to problems in managing its inventory of nuclear weapons. (A B-52 bomber crew accidentally flew six nuclear-tipped missiles from North Dakota to Louisiana without anyone noticing they were gone.) In June 2008, Gates announced the firing of the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley, and his civilian superior, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne.

His willingness to make heads roll represented a dramatic departure from Rumsfeld’s management style. Although Rumsfeld alienated much of the military leadership, he would not relieve senior commanders for major mishaps such as the Abu Ghraib scandal or the many other tactical and strategic blunders that occurred in Iraq between 2003 and 2007. Gates, by contrast, managed to stay in the good graces of the uniformed military even as he held their leaders to account.


As Obama’s defense secretary, Gates became known for forming alliances with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a host of issues to pursue fairly centrist policies similar to those of the Bush administration. There has been striking continuity in areas ranging from the Proliferation Security Initiative (an “alliance of the willing” to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction) to drone strikes in Pakistan (which are actually up since the Bush years). The Gates-Clinton duo was widely seen as the driving force pushing Obama to back off his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq within 18 months of taking office; there are still 50,000 troops in Iraq, and Obama has signaled his willingness to keep a residual presence even after the end of 2011. Gates and Clinton also pushed for a fresh troop surge in Afghanistan, expanding a buildup that began at the end of Bush’s second term. The number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan more than tripled between early 2009 and the end of 2010, from 30,000 to 100,000.

The largest and most controversial increase occurred at the end of 2009, when Obama sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan after a bruising internal administration battle. But just as the surge was being implemented, aides to the commanding general there, Stanley McChrystal, were quoted disparaging administration figures in an article in Rolling Stone. Obama fired McChrystal and replaced him with Petraeus. This was a tricky moment for a commander-in-chief with no military experience of his own—a potential crisis in civil-military relations that Gates helped to defuse with his willingness to get rid of McChrystal, whom he had handpicked for the job. (Gates had fired the previous commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, for not being dynamic enough.)

Yet after largely getting his own way on Afghanistan, Gates was humiliatingly rebuffed in June as he was leaving, when Obama announced that 10,000 surge troops would come home by the end of 2011 and the other 20,000 by September 2012. This step was taken against the advice of Petraeus and other military commanders who—with Gates’s support—wanted to keep most of the surge forces at least through the end of 2012 so they could shift the focus of their operations from southern to eastern Afghanistan. As late as June 4, Gates was quoted as saying that the administration was considering only “some modest drawdowns.” He said: “I think that once you have committed, that success of the mission should override everything else because the most costly thing of all would be to fail.” Less than three weeks later, Obama announced a far-from-modest drawdown that threatens the success of the mission. Gates, like Petraeus and Mullen, dutifully said he supported the president’s decision, but his body language signaled otherwise.

This rebuff came not long after Gates had lost yet another policy battle, this one over intervention in Libya. Gates took the view that the U.S. military was already overextended and that ending the slaughter in Libya was not a “vital interest of the United States”—a position he announced publicly on Meet the Press on March 27, after U.S. aircraft were already committed to battle. The Gates-Clinton alliance broke down on this issue, with the secretary of state favoring military action. Obama chose her advice (and the advice of NSC aide Samantha Power and UN Ambassador Susan Rice) over Gates’s—and the military’s.

This was not all that surprising, since the armed forces have long been skeptical of “contingency operations” that were favored by human-rights advocates. In the 1990s Bush and Clinton administration officials clashed with military leaders over intervention in Somalia and the Balkans. This led to then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s famous rebuke to Gen. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “What’s the use of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” But in the case of Libya, while civilian vs. military battle lines were drawn as per usual, the great shift was in Obama’s view. He had come into office vowing to emulate the Real-politik policies of George H.W. Bush—policies that Gates himself, a veteran of the first Bush administration, no doubt agreed with. Now Obama was shifting toward a more interventionist policy that left the buttoned-down defense secretary visibly uncomfortable.


An even greater cause of discord between Gates and Obama was the defense budget. In 2010 Gates volunteered to find $100 billion of cuts in the defense budget on the condition that he could reinvest the savings from marginal programs into those that were, in his judgment, more important. He dutifully closed some headquarters, eliminated some general-officer slots, and even shut down the whole U.S. Joint Forces Command. He also cancelled or capped 30 procurement programs that, if taken to completion, would have cost more than $300 billion. The cancellations included the Army’s Future Combat System (a whole family of high-tech armored vehicles), the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (an armored amphibious assault vehicle), the VH-71 presidential helicopter, the Navy’s CG(X) next-generation cruiser, the Air Force’s F-22 (a top-of-the-line Stealth fighter), and Airborne Laser (a missile defense system). Other programs, such as the Navy’s new aircraft carrier, were delayed, while the planned buy of F-35 fighters, Littoral Combat Ships, and other systems was reduced.

In January of this year the White House demanded more cuts—with the savings going back to the Treasury, not to the Pentagon. Gates reluctantly came up with $78 billion in cutbacks in the hope of forestalling even deeper reductions. This included whittling down Army and Marine end-strength by 47,000 personnel, reversing the increase in the size of the ground force that he had pushed through to deal with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Again Gates was a good soldier, helping Obama to sell cuts that might otherwise have met opposition on Capitol Hill. He told reporters, “We must come to realize that not every defense program is necessary, not every defense dollar is sacred or well spent, and more of everything is simply not sustainable.” But he also warned that deeper cuts would be “risky at best and potentially calamitous.”

Those big cuts materialized in April when, against Gates’s advice (and with almost no advance notice), Obama announced that he would cut defense by $400 billion by 2023. This will mean keeping the defense budget roughly constant in nominal terms—but once built-in escalations for inflation, fuel costs, health-care costs, salaries, and other unavoidable expenses are taken into account, the result will be a real loss of defense capacity.

Even bigger cutbacks are being debated in Washington to deal with the fiscal crisis, even though the core defense budget—$553 billion in fiscal year 2012—is a relatively small part of both the nation’s GDP (3.7 percent) and of the federal budget (15 percent). The Defense Department is scheduled to spend an extra $118 billion on contingency operations in 2012, but that number is down from $159 billion this year and is scheduled to decline even more in the years ahead as troop levels fall in Afghanistan and Iraq. If those supplemental war costs are included, the defense budget will swell to 19 percent of the federal budget—still considerably less than the Department of Health and Human Services, which consumes 24 percent of the budget and is growing.

This is part of a historical trend: the defense budget, which once used to be the government’s largest expenditure, has dwindled in relative terms while entitlement programs (such as Medicare and Medicaid, which are administered by HHS) have ballooned. Yet lawmakers so far have shown scant appetite for cutting entitlements; defense is an easier target.

This is a painful development for someone like the 67-year-old Gates, who grew up during the Cold War and spent most of his life as part of the national-security bureaucracy at the CIA, National Security Council, and Department of Defense. He saw how American power checked Soviet expansionism and more recently has dealt with lesser but still lethal threats such as al-Qaeda.He does not want to see the world’s mightiest military turning into a shadow of itself. During the Cold War, the United States spent an average of 7.5 percent of GDP on defense. Will it now be impossible to sustain a commitment of half that size? Gates is worried. As he told Newsweek in an interview published June 19:

I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position. It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.

To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government…that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.

This concern forms the backdrop for many of the comments—some caustic and cutting, all newsworthy—that he made during a farewell round of public statements. On June 15, for instance, he warned the Senate Appropriations Committee: “We need to be honest with the president, with you, with the American people, indeed, ourselves…a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things…. It would be well to remember that we still live in a very dangerous and often unstable world. Our military must remain strong and agile enough to face a diverse range of threats.”

He had expanded on the same theme weeks earlier in a May 24 speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He pointed out that “the proverbial ‘low-hanging fruit’—those weapons and other programs considered most questionable—have not only been plucked, they have been stomped on and crushed. What remains are much-needed capabilities…that our nation’s civilian and military leadership deem absolutely critical.”

Among the critical needs he cited are a new tanker for the Air Force (“the ones we have are twice as old as many of the pilots flying them”); the F-35 strike fighter, which is needed to “maintain a healthy margin of superiority over the Russians and Chinese”; more ships for the Navy, whose fleet “has sunk to the lowest number since before World War II”; new vehicles and helicopters for the ground forces, which “are worn down after a decade of war”; and a new ballistic missile submarine. Yet, no matter how important, all these programs are imperiled by further defense cuts.

Gates concluded his AEI speech with this heartfelt plea:

America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet….There is no doubt in my mind that the continued strength and global reach of the American military will remain the greatest deterrent against aggression, and the most effective means of preserving peace in the 21st century, as it was in the 20th.

In a commencement address at Notre Dame on May 22, he called America “the indispensable nation” and warned that “if America declines to lead the world, others will not.” A week earlier, at North Dakota State, he warned against “declinist sentiment” and against the impulse for Americans “to crouch behind the nation’s borders, feeling secure surrounded by the vast seas, in the belief that remote events elsewhere in the world need not bother us. That approach has repeatedly led to disastrous results.”

To avoid the worst disaster, Gates advocates making tough strategic choices. “The one thing I am totally opposed to,” he told Defense News in an interview published June 13, “is the kind of across-the-board haircut that we did in the 70s and the 90s, which hollows out the entire force—no money to exercise, no money to fly, no money to shoot bullets in training, et cetera.” Instead he advocated deciding which missions the armed forces could dispense with, and cutting capabilities accordingly.

Unfortunately, as Gates knows full well, Washington politicos are likely to disregard his advice. The easiest path politically is to mandate across-the-board cuts while calling on the armed forces to keep performing their current missions. The British armed forces have lately seen a particularly egregious example of this phenomenon: David Cameron’s Conservative government has cut spending on defense by 8 percent while committing the UK’s armed forces to battle in Libya and continuing their involvement in Afghanistan. The result is that after a few months, the British are running out of munitions to fire at Qaddafi’s forces. America risks following a similar path.


This brings us to another major source of frustration for Gates: the lack of capability among our allies. On June 10, he delivered a scorching speech in Belgium decrying NATO’s impotence. He cited the alliance’s struggles to sustain its war efforts in Afghanistan and Libya, both of which require considerable backstopping from the United States. The culprit is declining defense budgets in Europe, with most of the NATO allies failing to spend even 2 percent of GDP on the military. This raises “the real possibility,” Gates said, “for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.” The Europeans have counted on the Americans to bail them out, but, as Gates warned, “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.”

Gates struck a nerve in Europe, as evident from Nicolas Sarkozy’s reaction. The French president fumed that Gates’s comments were “unfair” and “don’t even correspond to any kind of truth.” He even speculated that Gates was “bitter” because of his impending retirement and was taking out his pique on the Europeans. In fact, Gates gave every indication that he looked forward to retirement.

But there is no doubt he is bitter—and for good reason. Sarkozy may think the Europeans are carrying their full share of the military burden, but even in Libya, where they are carrying out most strike missions as a result of Obama’s “lead from behind” doctrine, they still couldn’t function without the surveillance, intelligence gathering, anti-air defense, air refueling, and other capabilities that only the United States can provide.

The question is whether publicly expressing his criticism, as Gates did, serves any purpose. Will it lead the Europeans to do more? Or will they simply give an exasperated shrug, as Sarkozy did? The latter is obviously the case—and Gates should have known it before he started talking, as most of his predecessors going back decades (Rumsfeld most famously) have made precisely the same case, and to little effect. The problem is that massive social spending in Europe makes it impossible to spend more on defense without risking social unrest. The irony is that with Obama’s expansion of health care and other federal programs, the United States is rapidly getting stuck in the same trap—as Gates realizes. But NATO can still serve a useful function as a political cover for U.S.-led action, even if we shouldn’t have exaggerated expectations for what it can accomplish on its own.


The final concern Gates expressed on his way out of office is nearly as quixotic. At West Point on February 25, he said: “In my opinion any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” This generated news coverage suggesting that Gates was a closet foe of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even accusations from some conservatives that he was undermining the morale of American troops fighting in those conflicts.

Actually, his message was a bit misinterpreted: his primary point was that the Army cannot afford the luxury of going back to preparing for conflicts against mirror-image adversaries modeled on the Red Army. The Army, he said, “must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements.” Lacking a plausible conventional adversary, he suggested, the Army must prepare “swift-moving expeditionary forces” that can deal with missions such as “counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability, or security force assistance missions.”

Gates is undoubtedly right about the Army’s primary focus in the future. Still, it was curious that he would rule out sending major ground forces to the Middle East, Asia, or Africa, given that few would have anticipated deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq before 9/11. In a June 19 CNN interview he conceded that “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 to say we should use military force and that we should do so with all the power that we have available to us.”

Yet at the same time he was still warning against too many military interventions. He told the New York Times in an interview published June 18: “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.” Yet most American wars are wars of choice. Presidents have used force hundreds of times since 1789. How many of those were unequivocally necessary for national survival? The Civil War and World War II, perhaps—and no others. It makes sense to caution, as Gates does, against rushing precipitously into a conflict, especially if the United States lacks the will or the means to win. But his warnings are unlikely to have any more effect on a future president facing a crisis somewhere in the world than they did on Obama in March as the president grappled with how to respond to the revolution in Libya.

There was a certain “prophet in the wilderness” quality to Gates’s departing pronouncements. In this respect, his words recall President Eisenhower’s famous “farewell address” in 1961, in which he warned “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower is now widely revered as one of our best presidents, and his words are still remembered—“military-industrial complex” has become a catchphrase on the left. Yet it is hard to think of any impact the Eisenhower speech actually had: the conjunction of arms makers and lawmakers continues to distort defense decisions today just as it did in the 1950s. Given how well the country has done since then—we have lost neither our freedom nor our prosperity—it is clear that Eisenhower’s warning was overblown. We can only hope that posterity views Gates’s warnings as equally hyperbolic. In the case of his criticisms of NATO and wars of choice, that may very well be the case. But Washington will ignore his warnings about the cost of defense cuts at its peril—and ours.