Many analysts have agreed that Leon Panetta will have a difficult time succeeding Robert Gates as secretary of defense, given what many view as Gates’s accomplishments during his four and a half years at the helm. While Gates has indeed accomplished some things at the Pentagon, the real problem for Panetta will be that Gates has been on all sides of most issues faced by the Department of Defense, something that very few of Gates’s supporters have noted. Let me give but a few examples:
First, Gates lifted the spirits of all those who believe that U.S. national security policy focuses too many resources on the military by becoming the first secretary of defense to say publicly that we should spend more on diplomacy to relieve the strain on the armed forces. But, when asked if he would shift funds from the Pentagon’s massive budget—which is more than ten times larger than that of State—to Foggy Bottom, Gates said no. Left unclear was where those extra funds for State would come from, especially when this country is confronting a massive deficit problem.
Second, Gates traveled to the Eisenhower library in May 2010 to announce that because of our massive federal deficits, the gusher of defense spending, which had seen the regular defense budget nearly double in real terms over the last decade and reach its highest level since World War II, had to end. But in what would probably make the thirty-fourth president turn over in his grave, Gates subsequently claimed that defense spending did not contribute to the deficit and therefore should not be part of any deficit-reduction plan. Moreover, every year of his tenure, Gates asked Congress to increase the defense budget in real terms. When he took over at the Pentagon, the baseline budget was $450 billion. Four and a half years later, it is over $550 billion.
To ward off arguments that since defense accounted for more than 50 percent of discretionary spending it must be part of any meaningful deficit reduction, Gates claimed that he has in fact already cut $300 billion in defense programs and found another $178 billion in waste in the Pentagon budget. What he failed to mention was that the $300 billion in program cuts were for programs that were already scheduled to be eliminated, like the F-22, or that other programs he terminated, like the Future Combat System, were relaunched, or that most of the efficiencies were plowed into other programs.
Third, Gates went to West Point in February and in a speech to the cadets invoked General MacArthur’s warning about not sending large numbers of ground troops into Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. In fact, he went so far as to say that any secretary of defense who made such a recommendation should have his head examined. But a few days after the speech, when pressed on how he could make such an argument, given his recommendation to Presidents Bush and Obama to add about 100,000 troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates recanted.
Fourth, Gates addressed the annual Navy League convention and asked the thousands of supporters of the sea service why the U.S. navy needed eleven carrier battle groups when the rest of the world combined in effect has only one. Yet when asked whether the Pentagon could thus eliminate a carrier battle group, he said no.
Gates’s supporters will no doubt counter that despite these inconsistencies, he at least deserves credit for the turnaround in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here again the reality is not what it appears. President Bush ordered the surge of thirty-five thousand troops to Iraq and relieved General Casey with General Petraeus before Gates took over. Moreover, Gates and the two admirals he appointed to oversee the operation, William Fallon as head of CENTCOM and Michael Mullen as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to get Petraeus to start reducing troop levels and thus end the surge in Iraq before Petraeus believed it was appropriate. The surge was saved only by retired General John Keane going to President Bush and telling him that Gates and his admirals were trying to undermine the president’s own policies.
Moreover, Gates is primarily to blame for the quagmire Obama inherited in Afghanistan. When his first appointee to run the war, General David McKiernan, asked President Bush in early 2008 for more troops to reverse the Taliban momentum, Gates not only did not support him but told him not to go public with his request. And when Obama decided to deal with the quagmire by sending more troops, Gates responded by firing McKiernan.
Speaking of firing, Gates not only fired McKiernan but also had to fire two more of the prominent military commanders he appointed, namely Admiral Fallon and General Stanley McChrystal (who was McKiernan’s replacement in Afghanistan).
Finally, Gates has also consistently overstated—most recently in a commencement speech at Notre Dame on May 22—the damage that would be caused by reducing defense spending to the levels recommended by the president and the deficit commission. He accomplished this through the false comparisons of what happened when Pentagon budgets were reduced after the wars in Korea and Vietnam and the end of the Cold War. True, the budgets did come down after those wars, but did Gates expect them to remain at these inflated wartime levels after the end of hostilities? Did the army and Marine Corps, which had over 500,000 boots on the ground in Vietnam, need to remain the same size when we withdrew? Did he expect that the U.S. needed the same amount of troops and defense spending after the Soviet Empire collapsed? Moreover, the “hollow” force, which he claims was created in the post-Cold War drawdown, marched to Baghdad in three weeks and evicted the Taliban from Afghanistan in less than a month. And what Gates fails to note is that in real terms, the base budget and war funding combined are more than $100 billion higher than we spent on average during the Cold War and higher than at the peak of the Reagan buildup.
Gates will be remembered as the only person to have served as secretary of defense in both a Republican and Democratic administration and the individual who calmed the waters after the stormy six-year tenure of Donald Rumsfeld. But close analysis reveals that, for the most part, his actions did not match his rhetoric, that he does not deserve the accolades that are being heaped upon him as he retires and that he will leave Panetta with more challenges than most realize. As Anthony Cordesman has pointed out, “Gates never really came to grips with the challenge of tying strategy to force plans, procurement plans, shaping U.S. deployment or bringing the budget back into balance with resources.”