The Skeptics

Reassessing Secretary Gates

In an article posted Friday on Foreign Policy’s website, Justin Logan and I resist the idea that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mounted a heroic assault on the Pentagon’s status quo. We deem Gates to be an excellent servant and promoter of the bad policies embraced by the bipartisan center of U.S. defense policymakers. The worst of those are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their justification: that counterterrorism requires counterinsurgency. We also argue that the Secretary has a knack for saying things that cause writers to give him credit for things he has no interest in doing, like cutting military spending.

In the last week, Larry Korb, Paul Pillar, Gordon Adams, and Chris Preble have published similar pieces. But as Gates’s retirement approaches, hagiographic assessments will likely become the norm, as they have been throughout his tenure. We were preemptively attacking those takes.

Contrary to some responses to our piece that I’ve seen online, the point was not to attack Gates personally. Instead, we are trying to change policies that Gates endorsed. That requires recognizing the trouble with them. We respect the Secretary’s service and applaud some of his decisions in the article. But commentators too often focus on Gates’s management and pronouncements without considering the policies that management prowess served and the gap between words and action.

Some readers complain that we’re assessing not the secretary’s performance, but that of the administrations that employed him. But to say that Cabinet secretaries simply execute policy is silly. Gates, as our article notes, is a policymaker and advisor, not a passive implementer of White House policy. He could have opposed the surge in Afghanistan, as much of the administration did. He could have agreed to the mild trim in military spending sought by some in the White House. I doubt that the White House even signed off on Gates’s public campaign to keep a substantial U.S. military force in Iraq after 2011.

A more sophisticated critique is that we should have corrected for political reality, that Gates was about as good a secretary as people with our views (come home America, roughly) could expect these days. One response is that political reality is more capacious than its servants tend to acknowledge. It seems at least plausible to me that President Obama harms his electoral prospects by listening to Gates on the three issues I just cited. And presidents and their advisors have considerable ability to shape public opinion. It should not be taken as given.

It is true, however, that our article uses Gates to critique the defense policies of the moment, and that no plausible defense secretary is likely to have won our approval. But so what? It is not unfair to criticize someone that chooses to serve an administration for its policies. And it’s infeasible to grade policies on a curve that adjusts for some take on political reality rather than simply comparing them to imaginable alternatives. Grading on a political curve would mimic the pernicious habit among D.C. policy analysts of adopting an operational mindset, where you focus on how to execute political ends rather than question their worth. That habit, which contributes to what Jonathan Stevenson recently called a coup d’esprit, was one of the targets of our article.

Image by MMŽbk