Please Come Back, Bob Gates

The rose-colored worldview of the Obama administration and many at the top of the military sorely needs the hardboiled realist's balance.

With the Russian annexation of Crimea and the overall rapid deterioration of the world’s international security situation, it would be reassuring to have that wise Cold War warrior Robert Gates back in government to give it some desperately needed wisdom and steely prudence. Gates has given our country so many years of fine and dedicated service that no one could reasonably ask for him to give any more. Still, though, one might wish that Gates would have another go as defense secretary given the desperate state of affairs at home and abroad.

The former secretary of defense says in his superb book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War that he was amused by the nickname, Yoda, which the bevy of young and inexperienced staffers who occupy President Barack Obama’s National Security Council Staff gave him. “Many influential appointees below the top level in the new administration, especially in the White House, had been undergraduates—or even in high school—when I had been CIA director. No wonder my nickname in the White House soon was Yoda, the ancient Jedi teacher in Star Wars…What they lacked was firsthand knowledge of real-world governing.”[1]

Gates’ hard-edged realism led him to judge Vladimir Putin much better than the youngsters in the Obama White House. Gates wrote, “I believe Putin is a man of Russia’s past, haunted by the lost empire, lost glory, and lost power. Putin potentially can serve as president until 2024. As long as he remains in that office, I believe Russia’s internal problems will not be addressed. Russia’s neighbors will continue to be subject to bullying from Moscow…”[2] Realist insight such as that is sorely lacking in the National Security Council staff these days.

And if Gates were to be back at the Pentagon, he might be able to steal a sliver of time from war in Europe and global chaos to patch-up civil-military relations at home. Managing American civil-military relations has never been, nor will it ever be, a task for the faint-hearted. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have had their share of tensions with the military, but Gates was a superb interlocutor for the military on one side and the civilians on the other. His influence is missing as there is a growing gap in trust and confidence today between senior-most civilians and the military’s leadership. Gates himself judged that Vice President Joe Biden was a major source of distrust of the military in the White House. Gates opined of Biden that he “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”[3]

One of the greatest paradoxes of President Obama’s second term is that—with his keen instincts to withdraw from the world—he chose as his national security advisor and ambassador to the United States, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, respectively, who are militant liberal interventionists. Gates, in his own time, was especially critical of liberal interventionists who pushed for the United States to do the lion’s share of the military work in 2011 to oust Libya’s despot Muammar Qaddafi. Then Ambassador to United Nations Rice and National Security Council staffer Power joined with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to persuade Obama to militarily intervene in Libya despite the lack of any major American national interests at stake in the Libyan uprising.[4] Gates was especially critical of Power and ordered his Pentagon staff not to give the National Security Council staff too much information on military options for Libya because “They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”[5]

The public periodically catches glimpses of these tensions between liberal interventionists and young White House staffers pitted against the military. As Rosa Brooks ably catalogued for Politico Magazine from her sources “tensions between the White House and the military are running worryingly high” and that “many senior military leaders complained of feeling baffled and shut out by a White House National Security Council Staff that, in their view, combines and insistence on micromanaging minor issues with a near-total inability to articulate coherent strategic goals.”[6]

Gates also would be better able to impose some discipline on the intensifying civil-military battles over the defense budget. As defense secretary, for example, he made Pentagon officials sign nondisclosure agreements to plug potential leaks that would have sabotaged plans for cutting budget items beloved by members of Congress. As Gordon Lubold reported in Foreign Policy, Secretary Chuck Hagel did away with this practice and favored trusting Pentagon officials not to leak.[7] Unfortunately, Pentagon officials are not as gentlemanly as Secretary Hagel, and the leaks have turned into floods, which are only going to rise in months ahead as draconian budget plans are turned into painful cuts.