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The paradox of Bob Gates

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Michael Gerson
March 15, 2011
— A rush of recent events has confirmed long-standing conservative suspicions about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—causing grumbling and a call from William Kristol for his hastened retirement.

In a speech last month at West Point, Gates argued that anyone recommending large American interventions in Asia should, quoting Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "have his head examined"—a strangely timed assertion with almost 100,000 Americans currently intervening in Afghanistan at Gates' recommendation. Later clarifications amounted to a retreat.


Gates’ unconcealed skepticism about a Libyan no-fly zone has encouraged Obama administration paralysis—a loss of both movement and humanitarian sensation.


And Gates’ recent trip to Bahrain—urging a process of political consultation the day before Saudi Arabian troops began arriving to prop up Bahrain’s royal family—seemed disconnected from the pace of change in the region.


Gates’ skepticism about the practical applicability of foreign policy ideals is a throwback to the days of President George H.W. Bush.


“We have to be very realistic,” Gates told me last week on his plane between stops in Afghanistan, Europe and Bahrain, “about our capacity to shape the world and to shape other countries that have their own history and their own culture and their own traditions—and particularly, to shape them in our image.”


But accepting this self-description—cautious, skeptical of idealism and intervention—misses the paradox of Bob Gates.


It was Gates who helped salvage the Iraq surge in Congress when key Republicans began to waiver and Democratic leaders pressed for a specific withdrawal date. It was Gates who has provided top cover for Gen. David Petraeus in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Gates who convinced President Obama, against the anti-war instincts of the White House staff and Democratic base, to support a serious escalation of the Afghan War. And it is Gates who has skillfully shifted attention away from Obama’s July deadline for the start of American withdrawal from Afghanistan toward the more realistic target of 2014, when Afghans are scheduled to assume the security lead in their country.


Perhaps only a foreign policy realist, with a reassuring public manner, could have rescued one unpopular war from defeat, made the transition to an anti-war administration, and put another war on a better path.


Gates demonstrates that being soft-spoken is not the same as being soft. Speaking of the Afghan surge, he pointed out to me a “mark of the change—and it’s a tragic mark, but I think it underscores the point I’m trying to make: When I took this job on Dec. 18th, 2006, 194 Americans had been killed (in action in Afghanistan). … As of now—as of today—it’s 1,155. So I think it underscores that from 2002 until well into 2007 and ’08, this war was being fought at a very different level of intensity.”


Gates’ strategy has been twofold: to win the wars we are in and to prepare an inertial Pentagon to fight them. The services tend to reserve their greatest enthusiasm for big-ticket, future capabilities.


“The Army,” says Gates, “has been dominated by armor; the Air Force, by the fighter pilots and strategic bombers; the Navy, by the carrier guys; and the Marine Corps, by the amphibious assault guys. And the truth is, all of those services need those capabilities, but they’re doing a hell of a lot of other stuff as well. But because their leadership has been dominated by people from those cultures, it’s been hard to institutionalize and prioritize these other missions that are also important.”


So Gates has pushed for vehicles better defended against IEDs, for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) programs to increase battlefield awareness, and for increased medevac capabilities that in Afghanistan have dramatically reduced the time between battlefield injury and treatment. In Gates’ view, counterinsurgency, counterterrorist and training missions—combating mines, missiles and insurgents instead of high-tech fighters and massed armies—will become only become more necessary.


Still, according to a rough Defense Department estimate, counterinsurgency programs account for just 10 percent of the military budget. About 50 percent is devoted to future, conventional high-end conflict. Another 40 percent is considered dual use. On the evidence of recent speeches, Gates fears that even these limited gains might be temporary—that the services, once the current conflicts wind down, will quickly unlearn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.


Gates is likely to retire in the next several months. Whatever the current criticisms, his replacement is not likely to be an improvement.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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