In five years as defense secretary, Dr. Robert Gates transformed the American military and put it on a course that will limit its ability to defend us for decades to come.
Gates’ term as defense secretary began under President Bush and ended after more than two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Of Gates’ “accomplishments,” three stand out, each of them a significant part of Obama’s agenda.
First is the sociological experimentation that he and Obama have imposed on the military. Second is the path of weakness and withdrawal from the global war against Islamic terrorism. Third is the diminution of our armed services’ ability to develop and use conventional forces, investing only in forces intended to fight “unconventional” wars.
Gates is the only defense secretary in history chosen by a new president to remain in office from one administration to another. But why? Obama was elected to be the “un-Bush” and had campaigned against almost everything Bush had done since 9/11.
For a defense secretary to serve both Bush and the “un-Bush” – with apparent dedication to both – required Gates’ strongest characteristic: malleability.
That malleability was evident before Obama’s inauguration. General Peter Pace was the first Marine to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Soon after his taking office, Gates was faced with threats from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) that if the widely-admired Pace were appointed to a second term, Levin would make his re-confirmation a fight over the Iraq war. Gates caved in to Levin’s threats and received a severe lashing from the Wall Street Journal for it. Its June 11, 2007 editorial said:
Mr. Gates seems to think he can succeed as the anti-Rumsfeld by appeasing the likes of Mr. Levin, but his kowtow only makes Mr. Bush look weaker as a Commander in Chief who can’t even select his own war generals…
The Levin Democrats aren’t seeking some new “bipartisan” strategy that will avoid defeat in Iraq. They want to blame Mr. Bush for defeat so they can destroy his Presidency and elect a Democrat in 2008. Mr. Bush can’t change that through appeasement in Washington but only by improving the facts on the ground in Baghdad. We thought he hired Mr. Gates to make that happen, not to act as a Beltway middleman for Carl Levin’s desires.
Pace is a Marine’s Marine: a tough combat-experienced leader who has a profound understanding of the war and how to fight it. But – to Levin – Pace’s possible renomination would be an opportunity to score points against Bush and the Iraq war. Pace was also an outspoken opponent of allowing homosexuals to serve in the military. Pace was politically inconvenient, so Gates tossed him overboard.
We don’t know what passed between Gates and Obama before Obama decided to retain Gates. But we do know how fast Gates abandoned Bush’s policies for Obama’s.
Since Bill Clinton’s first day in office, liberals have tried to impose their social values on the military with willful disregard for the damage caused to the military’s culture. After spending all his political energy for a year to get Obamacare passed, Obama — and Gates – began picking up where Clinton left off.
In February 2010, Gates notified Congress that he was rescinding the ban on women serving aboard submarines.
The damage to military families and the military’s warrior culture — outraged submariners’ wives and mothers didn’t want their men serving aboard submersible “Love Boats” — were ignored. Gates later said that he foresaw a time when women would serve among the Special Forces.
Gates’ (really Obama’s) biggest blow to the military culture was last year’s repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that prohibited homosexuals from serving openly in the military. Gates, speaking of the inevitability of repeal, had his new Joint Chiefs Chairman — Adm. Mike Mullen — lobby Congress for the repeal in such strong terms that even some Democrats were surprised.
The issue of homosexuality in the military isn’t over. It has already come up in the Republican nomination contest and is very likely to become a significant issue in the presidential campaign.
Liberals – Levin chief among them – have always opposed ballistic missile defense. Rumsfeld took Ronald Reagan’s idea of ballistic missile defense off the drawing boards and actually deployed it in California and Alaska.
Under Gates, the Airborne Laser boost-phase defense system was scaled back, the Multiple Kill Vehicle and Kinetic Energy interceptor programs were cancelled and plans to expand the ground-based interceptors already deployed to California and Alaska were cut significantly.
Bush had promised a ground-based interceptor system to Poland to protect Europe from missile attack. Gates helped Obama paper over cancellation of the system for Poland, the two promising in its place a sea-based substitute. But, as Gates must know, the sea-based substitute is a Potemkin defense: we don’t have enough ships or the missiles to arm them to deploy a sea-based substitute. If the ships are ever built – which is by no means certain – they won’t be deployed for about a decade past the date when the ground-based system could have been.
Gates went the extra mile for Obama on the conduct of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates helped Obama cobble up their politically time-limited “surge” to Afghanistan. The number of troops sent was far less than the generals wanted (30,000 versus 40-60,000) and the announcement of it included the date on which he’d begin withdrawing our troops. When Obama announced the accelerated withdrawal schedule in June, Gates was supportive but the military was not. The new Afghanistan commander, Lt. Gen. John Allen, told Congress that the number of troops Obama was withdrawing was greater than the military recommended.
Whatever Obama wanted, Gates was ready to give. When Obama decided to do the bidding of the UN and the Arab League by sending US aircraft to attack Libya, Gates was his point man.
In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama said he wanted to “win the future.” But neither he nor Gates seemed to care that you can’t “win the future” unless you first secure it.
Obama credited Gates with saving $400 billion in defense spending and said he wants to cut another $400 billion over ten or twelve years.
The money Gates has already “saved” was cut from the heart of the future capabilities of our armed forces. Gates announced the cuts before he analyzed what our forces are supposed to be able to do. The Quadrennial Defense Review – the analysis of threats on which the defense budget is supposed to be based – was done after Gates announced his first round of cuts.
Now, as Gates leaves, the “study” on which the next $400 billion in cuts will be based has been set up to justify Obama’s predetermined cuts. Whether defense cuts muscle or fat is immaterial to Obama, as long as the cuts are justified retroactively.
In a 2008 speech Gates said, “I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called “Next-War-itis” – the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.” In that same speech, Gates expressed a disbelief that America would ever have to fight another conventional war. With the cuts he made, Gates put the Pentagon on the path to abandoning the future, not winning it.
Gates cut the F-22 air superiority fighter and put the armed services’ fighter eggs in one basket: the far-behind-schedule and over-budget F-35, which is vastly less capable than the F-22. (According to the Congressional Research Service, the Air Force is forecasting a fighter shortfall of 800 aircraft from 2017 to 2024, and the Navy-Marine Corps an additional shortfall of about 240.)
The Navy’s shrinking fleet – now about 286 ships – will soon be smaller than at any time since World War One. Gates has dedicated the Pentagon’s shrinking budget to the kind of weapons used now to attack terrorists by remote control, such as drones. Nations such as China and Iran – not America – will decide whether conventional wars have to be fought in the future.
It was only when his retirement became imminent that Gates spoke against further military spending cuts and told Europe it needed to spend more to defend itself. He is right in saying that now. But why didn’t he say it sooner?
As I have written here before, history will be much kinder to Donald Rumsfeld than the daily press was. His accomplishments speak for themselves. And so do Robert Gates’, for which history will judge him more harshly than his predecessor.