Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates leaves office Thursday popular with the liberal Washington establishment, but not so with conservatives chafed by his budget cutting and his enthusiastic support for open gays in the ranks.
In some ways, Mr. Gates’ 4½-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 pro-business 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 unmanned 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 two-year 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.”
Not all defense hawks like Mr. Gates. One of this 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 gays.
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 gays 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.
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 this 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 very 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.”