The Mark | 7.1.11
By Alan W. Dowd

As Robert Gates hands off the reins at the Pentagon to Leon Panetta, the American people and their allies in Canada, Europe and Asia should take comfort in knowing that the first and last line of the West’s defence has been—and remains—in steady hands.

A little history is in order. It pays to recall that as a candidate and in the early months of his presidency, President Barack Obama largely rejected the Bush administration’s characterization of the United States being a nation at war. The Obama administration made a concerted effort to expunge the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements, using “overseas contingency operations” instead. In quick succession, Obama ordered the closure of the detention facility at GuantanamoBay, put a time limit on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and made entreaties to the strongmen who run Iran. In the midst of this 180-degree turn, Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.

But Panetta, who served as CIA director before taking over at the Pentagon, refused to engage in the rhetorical and political games over word choice. “There’s no question this is a war,” he bluntly said of the struggle against jihadist terrorism. (Tellingly, in his address announcing the strike on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the president used the word “war” eight times.)

While others talked about talking to Iran, Panetta told it like it was, reporting that Iran has “enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons.”

And he was an early and vocal advocate of the so-called drone war in Pakistan, calling it “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership.

The man replacing Panetta at CIA is Gen. David Petraeus, who has fought al Qaeda on two fronts. Petraeus came into the public’s field of vision at a time when nothing was going right in Iraq—and virtually no one thought the Iraq project could be salvaged. But that’s exactly what Petraeus did. After rewriting the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency manual, he put it to the test in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi; altered the course of the war; saved Iraq from itself; and rescued America from defeat.

Obama then asked Petraeus to make lightning strike twice by repeating in Afghanistan what he accomplished in Iraq. And now the president has tappedPetraeus to work his counter-insurgency and counter-terror magic at CIA.

In short, Panetta and Petraeus are solid picks. Not only do they have proven track records; the president’s choice of these two underscores that despite all the rhetoric, he continues to fill key security and defence posts with people who understand the country is at war with a tenacious and determined enemy.

That brings us back to Gates. Recall that before he served in the Obama administration, Gates was President George W. Bush’s defence secretary, which means he carried out the surge strategy in Iraq and helped plan the revised mission for Afghanistan that the Obama administration largely implemented.

Indeed, any recap of Gates’ tenure has to begin and end with his sense of duty. It pays to recall that he took over at the Pentagon in the midst of a war that was spiraling out of control, against the howling headwinds unleashed by his predecessor’s controversial style and consequential decisions. And then, when a new commander-in-chief with a new direction asked, Gates stayed on.

In a Foreign Policy profile, Gates explained, “I really didn’t want to be asked” to stay. That’s because he knew if he were asked, he would not say no. “In the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, ‘No.’”

The Bush-Obama handoff wasn’t fumbled, in large part, because of Gates.

On Afghanistan, Gates talked tough—and meant it—about the halfhearted commitment of many of America’s NATO allies. “We must not—we cannot—become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” he bluntly warned, adding that most NATO troops are simply “not trained in counterinsurgency,” which is the kind of war NATO is fighting in Afghanistan. He continued that refrain all the way up until his last days in office, warning the alliance of a “dim…dismal future” without real reform and shared commitment.

Trying to be a good soldier, Gates appeared to do rhetorical gymnastics in defending Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, conceding that Obama’s nuclear plans had removed the “calculated ambiguity” that had kept America’s enemies on notice and off balance for decades.

Even so, Gates was not a yes man. For example, he called on Congress to pass legislation to prevent Gitmo detainees from being transferred into the United States.

Gates clearly disagreed with Obama’s position on Libya, warning before NATO bombs started falling that “a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya”—and noting after a few weeks of war that Libya was not a threat and “not a vital national interest to the United States.”

In recent months, Gates shifted his focus to ending what he called “the culture of endless money that has taken hold” inside the Pentagon. Although the military was the beneficiary of healthy infusions of cash after 9/11—what Gates called “a gusher of defence spending”—Gates challenged his charges to do something the rest of Washington hasn’t been asked to do: spend less and spend smarter.

Specifically, Gates presented plans to cut defence spending by tens of billions. He also shut down obsolete or over-priced weapons programs. “The patriot today,” he said, quoting President Dwight Eisenhower, “is the fellow who can do the job with less money.” 

Yet in one of his last addresses as defence secretary, Gates cautioned his successors not to cut too deep. “I have long believed—and I still do—that the defence budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes....When President Eisenhower warned of the ‘Military Industrial Complex’ in 1961, defence consumed more than half the federal budget, and the portion of the nation’s economic output devoted to the military was about 9 percent. By comparison, this year’s base defence budget…represents less than 15 percent of all federal spending and equates to roughly three and a half percent of GDP.”

“If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military,” he went on, “people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country, as well as for the variety of military operations we have around the world, if lower priority missions are scaled back or eliminated…The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people—accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades—want their country to play in the world.”

In other words, the American people and their allies benefit from the American military’s ability to deter the bad guys, help the victims of dictators and disasters alike, and police the world’s toughest neighbourhoods. That comes with a high price tag, to be sure. However, as Gates said goodbye he was reminding us that there is also a price to eschewing that role.