The Transformer

Bob Gates never thought he'd be Barack Obama's defense secretary. Now, in an exclusive interview, the most revolutionary Pentagon leader since Robert McNamara tells FP why he said yes, when he'll get out of Washington, and what legacy he hopes to leave behind.

Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images
Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images
Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images

Late in 2007, a year into his tenure as George W. Bush's secretary of defense and just over a year before the end of Bush's second term as president, I asked Robert Gates if he'd thought of staying on in the next administration. Many Republicans and Democrats were hoping he would, seeing him as a moderate professional sweeping away the shambles left by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. But Gates seemed uninterested, even hostile to the notion. "The circumstances under which I would do that," he replied, "are inconceivable to me."

Late in 2007, a year into his tenure as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense and just over a year before the end of Bush’s second term as president, I asked Robert Gates if he’d thought of staying on in the next administration. Many Republicans and Democrats were hoping he would, seeing him as a moderate professional sweeping away the shambles left by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. But Gates seemed uninterested, even hostile to the notion. "The circumstances under which I would do that," he replied, "are inconceivable to me."

Over the next several months, he repeated the line to other inquiring journalists. He carried around a key chain with an electronic screen that counted down the number of days until he could leave Washington (a city he clearly disliked) and retire with his wife to their lakeside home in the Pacific Northwest.

And yet, when President-elect Barack Obama asked him to remain at the Defense Department’s helm, Gates instantly agreed.

This summer, sitting in his spacious third-floor office in the Pentagon’s E Ring, I asked him why. How was he persuaded to commit an "inconceivable" act? Gates confessed (and "confess" is the word he used) that his sighs of longing to leave in the months leading up to the 2008 election were part of a "covert action" to convince everyone that he didn’t want to stay, in the hopes that nobody would ask him to. "I really didn’t want to be asked," he said. But, he added, that was because all along he knew "that if I were asked, I would say, ‘Yes.’ In the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, ‘No.’"

It’s a revealing story about Gates: the old-school statesman who believes that party politics should stop at the water’s edge and that it’s unseemly to turn down a president, any president (he has worked for seven now, all of them since Richard Nixon except Bill Clinton); but also the canny inside player and career intelligence officer who knows how to manage perceptions. Although he’s the only Bush holdover in Obama’s cabinet (for that matter, the only defense secretary ever to keep the job after a party switch in the White House), Gates now has extraordinary influence on Obama. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said in a phone interview that Gates is "an essential part of the team," adding, "The president trusts him implicitly."

Gates is a paradox in another sense: A self-described protector of institutions, he has also, in less than four years on the job, changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara.

But there’s a haunting dimension to this comparison. In his first two-and-a-half years running the Pentagon for President John F. Kennedy, McNamara brought rational analysis to weapons procurement and shifted military planning from "massive retaliation" (with an emphasis on nuclear bombs) to "flexible response" (and a buildup of conventional defenses in Europe). Yet this side of his tenure is completely overshadowed by the disaster in Vietnam.

Only somewhat less dramatically, Gates has heralded a shift in military planning from the "major combat operations" anticipated in the Cold War to the "asymmetrical conflicts" against insurgents and rogue states that plague the 21st-century world. Yet Gates, too, understands that his legacy will be shaped much more by the outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — wars that he did not initiate, and occasionally had doubts about continuing, but which he now undoubtedly and unhesitantly owns.

When Gates accepted Bush’s plea to replace Rumsfeld after the 2006 midterm elections, he did so with two aims: to improve security in Iraq, which seemed to be spiraling out of control, and to restore ruptured relations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress.

Gates had spent most of his life in the classified cloisters of the government as a Russia specialist in the CIA, rising from junior analyst to director in some of the darkest days of the Cold War, with a stint as deputy national security advisor in the White House of Bush’s father. But he’d never worked at the Pentagon. Because he arrived with little time and a narrow mission, he felt no need or obligation to play the role of steward. He looked around as an inside-outsider, and he was appalled by what he saw.

U.S. troops were fighting and dying in two foreign wars, but the Pentagon bureaucracy was shuffling through its peacetime paces. The Army and the Marines, for example, had a new armored vehicle, the MRAP, which could provide greater protection against Iraqi roadside bombs and save many troops’ lives. But the brass were doing nothing to accelerate production. Similarly, the Air Force had a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles, "drones" equipped with real-time video cameras and remote-control-fired missiles; troops in the field were clamoring for more, but Air Force leaders were not stepping up deployment.

Gates quickly intervened, taking both programs outside normal channels. He added $16 billion to build more MRAPs on a crash schedule. And he fired the Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen T. Michael Moseley, in part for negligence with the nuclear command, but mainly, according to knowledgeable officials, for his sluggishness on the drones. Gates replaced him with Gen. Norton Schwartz, head of the Air Force’s unglamorous Transportation Command. He picked Schwartz because he had tirelessly worked out a way, at Gates’s request, to speed the air delivery of MRAPs to Iraq; that is, he’d acted as if a war was going on. (Schwartz’s promotion made him the first Air Force chief of staff to come up through the ranks as neither a bomber pilot nor a fighter pilot; the move marked the beginning of a huge cultural shift in that branch of the military.)

Gates also noticed that the Army’s most innovative colonels — brigade commanders who not only understood counterinsurgency theory but practiced it in Iraqi cities and villages — were getting stalled in their careers by generals with much less battlefield experience and who were wedded to Cold War precepts of combat. So, near the end of 2007, Gates called on Gen. David Petraeus, then the U.S. commander in Iraq and the architect of the counterinsurgency strategy there, to chair that year’s Army promotion board, which would advance 40 colonels to the rank of brigadier general. More than a dozen of the Army’s promising colonels, at least one of whom had been passed over twice, got their stars. With this single stroke, the Army’s culture — the signals sent to the troops of what kind of soldiers get promoted and what kind don’t — changed dramatically.

There was much more to do but too little time before Bush’s presidency expired. So Gates began giving a series of public speeches. Their main theme was that the military needed to embrace the 21st century in its deployments, training, operations, and weapons buying. It needed, specifically, to shift away from what he described as "baroque" single-purpose weapons designed for Cold War scenarios (or big wars against big powers in a distant future that wasn’t likely ever to happen) toward cheaper, more versatile weapons better suited to the low-intensity conflicts the United States was actually fighting. In an almost unprecedented move, Gates also called repeatedly for more funding for the Pentagon’s traditional bureaucratic rivals in the State Department, warning of the "creeping militarization" of U.S. foreign policy.

Gates was explicitly laying out an agenda for the next defense secretary. Then he became him. Or, as he now puts it, "I punted all these balls to my successor and discovered I was the receiver." In the first half of Obama’s term, he has followed through, catching the punts and running with them farther and faster than anyone expected. (One exception is the notion of transferring money to the State Department; that hasn’t happened.)

Even before Obama’s term formally began, Gates launched a three-month review of every major line item in the half-trillion-dollar defense budget, drawing the entire building — the highest-level civilian analysts and military officers — into the process. By April 2009, his teams had compiled a list of 50 programs primed for change. Gates decided to kill, slash, or restructure 33 of them, including some of the services’ most cherished weapons systems. (Rumsfeld talked about "transforming" the military, but in fact canceled just two weapons: the Crusader artillery gun and the Comanche helicopter, the latter of which the Army didn’t want anyway.)

Gates stopped the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighter plane, killed whole sections of the Army’s multiplatform Future Combat Systems, and sank the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer, to name a few. The F-22 was the great white whale. Many Air Force officers saw it as their dream weapon, the most sophisticated fighter plane in the world. Gates saw it as a Cold War relic at a time when no enemies had fleets of advanced fighter planes and decades after any American pilot had fought an air-to-air duel. The United States already had 187 of these planes (none of which had taken part in any of the wars the United States was fighting), at a cost of $65 billion. The Air Force wanted 381 in all or, as a last-ditch compromise, 247. Gates and his analysts calculated that 187 were enough. After a drawn-out debate, the Senate agreed, defeating an amendment to restore production.

All told, Congress approved 31 of Gates’s 33 cuts. The other two — the C-17 cargo plane and an alternative engine for the F-35 fighter — Gates has vowed to kill this year. Gates’s office calculates that his cuts will have saved $330 billion over the lifetime of those 31 programs, though such estimates, especially when drawn over not just years but decades, are very speculative.

Gates won these fights for several reasons. The first was that he is Gates: a Republican hawk (albeit a relatively moderate one) and therefore immune to charges that he’s "soft on defense."

Second, he had the Joint Chiefs behind him, and that was because he fully consulted them at every step of the review. This is where Gates differs not only from Rumsfeld but from McNamara, the systems analyst who stormed into a Pentagon where no general had ever had to make a reasoned argument on behalf of a weapons system ("it’s a military requirement" usually sufficed) and imposed massive changes. Gates knew that, to make change stick, the officers carrying it out had to feel they had a stake in the decision. By contrast, when President Jimmy Carter and his defense secretary, Harold Brown, killed the B-1 bomber, the Air Force program managers, who hadn’t been consulted, didn’t really kill it; they tacked on some cosmetic changes and called it the "cruise missile carrier aircraft." When Ronald Reagan won the next election, they dropped the pretense, and the B-1 resumed as if Carter had never made the decision.

Finally, Gates won because he had Obama’s support. When Gates submitted his budget to Congress, the president attached a message that he would — not "might," but "would" — veto the bill if it contained money for even one more F-22. It was the only veto threat in the president’s first budget, and it worked.

By then, it was clear — to the surprise of many — that the two men had hit it off. Their biographies were very different, but their executive sensibilities were nearly identical: pragmatic, problem-solving, averse to ideological formula and cliché, inclined to give everyone involved a say and then make a crisp decision. Several officials said that Obama had asked Gates to stay on as defense secretary mainly to provide continuity in the management of the wars — and cover for any resulting controversies, owing to his credibility with the Joint Chiefs and with both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. But it was soon evident that Gates had become, as one official put it, "a core player on the team." Obama meets with Gates once a week at the White House, something he does with only two other cabinet officers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "There are a few cabinet secretaries who give advice outside their lane," a senior administration official said. "Gates is one of them."

Gates’s most fateful influence may have come in the deliberations over the war in Afghanistan. Early in Obama’s presidency, in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates endorsed the commanders’ request for 21,000 more troops to shore up security for the upcoming Afghan election but stressed that he’d be "deeply skeptical" of requests for more down the road. One of his most searing experiences was as the CIA’s deputy director during the Reagan years, watching the Soviet empire collapse in the Afghan quagmire. If the Afghan people see the war as an American war, Gates told the senators, "we will go the way of other imperial occupiers."

Yet late in the summer of 2009, Gates changed his mind. He was reading a lot of articles on Afghanistan, and one had particular resonance: a piece by Frederick Kagan, a military analyst and vocal war supporter at the American Enterprise Institute, called "We’re Not the Soviets in Afghanistan," published that August by the Weekly Standard. Gates said the article reminded him of some facts about the earlier war that he’d forgotten — that the Soviets had killed 1 million Afghans, displaced 5 million more, and set out basically to destroy the country. "Clearly," Gates said in our interview, "none of that is what we were about in Afghanistan."

At the same time, the new Afghan war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was briefing Gates on a new strategy, similar to Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy in post-2006 Iraq, that would focus on protecting the Afghan population and taking explicit steps to minimize civilian casualties. McChrystal, who was eventually fired this summer for making impolitic comments to a Rolling Stone reporter, had been on the job less than two months at that point. Gates had fired his predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, in May 2009 and strongly recommended McChrystal to replace him. McKiernan had asked for more troops but offered no new strategy, no coherent war plan at all; Gates, who had placed McKiernan on the job a year earlier, saw no point in adding more forces if all they’d do was keep grinding the wheels.

"The basis of my previous view was that once the Afghans come to see you as an occupier, you’re toast," Gates recalled in our interview, which took place soon after McChrystal was sacked. "McChrystal’s whole approach was avoiding that. How do you demonstrate to the Afghans that you’re there as their partner and their liberator rather than as their oppressor? His strategy for doing that seemed to be really compelling."

By Sept. 13, 2009, when Obama held the first of what turned out to be 10 senior-level national security meetings to formulate a U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Gates had come to support the idea of sending more troops — tens of thousands more.

Emanuel recalled that Gates played "a key role" in the ensuing debates over whether to go in heavy with an expansive counterinsurgency strategy or go lighter with a strategy focused more strictly on going after terrorists (or something in between). Another official who attended the meetings referred to Gates as "a center of gravity in the review," noting, "If someone was 30 degrees in one direction and someone else was 30 degrees in the other direction, he would balance their views toward a consensus, bringing in elements of both."

In the end, Obama decided to send 30,000 extra troops (McChrystal had recommended 40,000) and adopt a somewhat scaled-down version of a counterinsurgency strategy, while also beginning to withdraw some of those troops by July 2011. What-if games are dubious enterprises, but it’s not unreasonable to infer that, had Gates come into those meetings as skeptical as he’d been before his summertime conversion, the emerging consensus — and Obama’s decision — might have tilted toward a smaller deployment and a less ambitious strategy.

Today, as the last 10,000 of the "surge" troops arrive in Afghanistan amid growing doubts in Washington and elsewhere about the war, Gates is optimistic that the strategy for Afghanistan will work. McChrystal’s firing did little to change the overall approach because Obama replaced him with Petraeus, who knew the plan and terrain well. "I see the process of transition in Afghanistan being similar to Iraq," Gates said in our interview, "in which we’re in the lead, then we’re partners [with Afghan security forces], then they’re in the lead, then we’re in tactical overwatch, and then strategic overwatch. And that will take some time."

Two elements are key here. First, Gates’s idea of an endgame is not the Bushian notion that Afghanistan becomes a democracy or even necessarily a stable country, but rather that its security forces can fight the war for the most part by themselves. Second, some U.S. armed forces will end up staying in Afghanistan — just as some (between 30,000 and 50,000) are due to stay in Iraq — for a long while.

"But by the same token," Gates added, "the one thing that I’ve made clear to everybody is that I’m not going to support a strategy that leads to a stalemate." In December, Obama’s national security team will conduct an assessment of whether the strategy is working. "If we’re not making any headway," Gates said, "then I think we have to look at making adjustments." What kinds of adjustments, he doesn’t know. "But we’re not just going to plunge ahead with exactly the same strategy if it’s clear it’s not working."

Will Gates still be there to help Obama plunge ahead or change course?

With the fall elections looming, the defense secretary’s plans are already the subject of intense Washington speculation. When he agreed to join Obama’s team, Gates thought he might stay for a year. Then came the budget review, in which he was given the leeway to implement many ideas that he’d only talked about under Bush. Then came the Afghanistan review, the results of which would take a while to play out. This summer, he was pushing the budget agenda further, including reforms in weapons contracting (especially the way contractors calculate "overhead," a vaguely defined money magnet that Pentagon gadfly A. Ernest Fitzgerald once called "the dark side of the moon") and drastic cuts in the number of military commands around the world (another Cold War relic), which entail similarly drastic cuts in the number of senior officers commanding and staffing them. Gates’s goal is to cut $100 billion over the next five years through these sorts of economies. Aides say that he’s "passionate," "revved-up," and "stoked" about the project.

Others, in and out of the Pentagon, are skeptical. Some doubt that renegotiating contracts and scrapping superfluous headquarters will save that much money. They also wonder whether Gates might be going, in one sense, a bridge too far and, in another sense, not far enough.

In the realm of Pentagon politics, it’s one thing to slash a few cherished weapons programs. But it’s another thing entirely to slash the number of colonels and generals — which, besides the obvious immediate threat to officers’ careers, means fewer promotions for majors and captains, who thus end their service at a lower rank and with less retirement pay. This is the sort of thing that could spark an old-fashioned officers’ revolt.

Yet, for all the commotion it might cause, the savings from such a move — even if they do amount to $20 billion a year — are small change in a half-trillion-dollar military budget (not counting the cost of the wars). Much bigger savings would come from asking more basic questions: Does the Navy really need 11 aircraft carriers, and does each carrier need the same number of planes and escort ships? Do the Air Force and Navy really need 2,000 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes, as Gates plans to give them (in part as compensation for stopping the F-22)? Does the Army really need 73 brigade combat teams, with all the weapons, support, and personnel that go with them?

To a remarkable degree, the U.S. military still has a Cold War force structure, built around fighter planes, aircraft-carrier task forces, attack submarines, and a large nuclear arsenal. Yet, contrary to some critics in the officer corps, who accuse Gates of shifting the focus entirely away from preparation for big wars to fighting today’s small wars, that’s one Cold War legacy that Gates does not want to change. He favors substantial increases in the military budget. He favors spending tens of billions of dollars to maintain, and somewhat upgrade, the nuclear arsenal. He opposes any slacking off in America’s global military presence.

In this sense, too, Gates is both expressing his genuine views and reflecting the political consensus. He is the secretary of defense; he has to pick his fights. At one point in our interview, he noted that he’s not proposing to cut the number of aircraft carriers. When I asked why not, he replied, "I may be bold, but I’m not crazy."

Gates, who turns 67 in September, says he wants to leave the job and retire, this time for good, sometime in 2011. "I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he said. It might be hard to find a good person to take the job so late, with just one year to go in the president’s current term. And, he added, "This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."

He pointed out that he’s the 22nd U.S. defense secretary since the position was created in 1947. "If I stay until January 2011," he said, "I will have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors. And those four are Robert McNamara, Don Rumsfeld, Cap Weinberger, and Charles E. Wilson." He laughed. All four are famous for having stayed long past their welcome. Two of them, McNamara and Rumsfeld, started out energetic and celebrated before tumbling into the traps of ill-considered wars.

Then again, Gates said much the same thing about not wanting to stick around after 2008. Is his new countdown ticker, set to go off in 2011, another "covert action," as he put it, to discourage Obama from asking him to stay? He certainly doesn’t say so. But if the president does ask, Robert Gates has always been the type to say, "Yes."  

Fred Kaplan is the national security columnist for Slate.

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