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.”
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…” 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.”
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. 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.”
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 “
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. 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.
Gates would go back to Machiavelli’s playbook and remember that sometimes it is better to be feared than loved. And nothing brings more fear to the Pentagon than the cashiering of a choice general officer or senior civilian official. Under Gates’ watch, when the air force momentarily lost track of several nuclear weapons in the United States, he fired the civilian air force secretary and the air force chief of staff. When Walter Reed Hospital’s travails were revealed in 2007 by terrific journalism, Gates had the commanding general fired. By his account, “the Walter Reed scandal gave me an unanticipated opportunity to demonstrate early on that when it came to incompetence, negligence, or anything negatively affecting our men and women in uniform, I could and would be utterly ruthless.”
Secretary Hagel would be a good apprentice if he adopted Gates’ technique to deal with the continued security problems that plague the air force’s command and control of nuclear weapons, the steady exposure of sexual assault problems inside the military, as well as the behaviors unbecoming of general and flag officers. The daunting task for any secretary of defense is to “strike the right balance between building team spirit and maintaining an open, close working relationship with the senior military while not getting too ‘buddy-buddy.’ He must instill a culture of accountability.”
Gates’ conservative philosophy of the constancy of human nature throughout history would be an antidote to the Enlightenment fallacy of humanity’s steady march toward ethical betterment in lockstep with technological progress, a liberal worldview to which the Obama administration clings. In his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2011, Gates warned “If history—and religion—teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world, people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their greed for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women…But make no mistake, the ultimate guarantee against success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the twenty-first century, as in the twentieth, is hard power—the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military.”
Above all, we sure could use Gates’ realism about the future of international security to remove the rose-colored glasses worn by those in the Obama administration as well as by many in senior-most military ranks. As Gates observed, “I am always amused when I hear a senior military officer or a politician declare that we will never fight certain kinds of wars again…In the forty years since Vietnam, our record in predicting where we will be militarily engaged next, even six months out, is perfect: we have never once gotten it right.” These are sagely words as American commentary grows louder that we will never have to do counterinsurgency again or that we will never have to do another major land war again. As the Obama administration begins gutting American air, land and sea forces, it would be prudent to recall that our perfect record of predicting the next war remains unblemished with the American intelligence community’s failure to anticipate Putin’s invasion of Ukraine’s territory.
Richard L. Russell teaches for the Security Studies PhD program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Florida.
 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 287-288.
 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 532.
 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 288.
 Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 511.