Gates’s Legacy

FP asked five experts to weigh in on what the U.S. defense secretary leaves behind.

Haraz N. Ghanbari-Pool/Getty Images
Haraz N. Ghanbari-Pool/Getty Images
Haraz N. Ghanbari-Pool/Getty Images

In his profile of Robert Gates, Fred Kaplan argues that the Pentagon leader has, in less than four years, "changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara."

In his profile of Robert Gates, Fred Kaplan argues that the Pentagon leader has, in less than four years, “changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara.”

Gates told Kaplan in their exclusive interview that he hopes to leave office sometime next year, saying, “It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012” to retire. Assuming he does leave, what legacy will Gates leave behind? FP turned to five prominent defense experts for answers.


Gary Hart:

War is not the time to rock the Pentagon boat, most would argue, and that would be doubly true of two simultaneous wars. Reformers, however, would argue that the chaos of war is exactly when major military changes should be made.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, identified primarily with establishment thinking and Republican administrations, has proved to be a remarkable transformer, or at least one who sets a course for transformation. Perhaps least noticed, but even more important than cancellation of weapons systems, was the elevation of combat brigade colonels to brigadier status. The watchword of military reformers is: Weapons don’t win wars; people win wars.

History will confirm that Secretary Gates has launched two important transformations, both of which will take years if not decades to complete. The first is the winding down of the giant Cold War weapons systems. The second is the rapid promotion of combat officers now experienced in the warfare of the future — irregular, unconventional conflict. As to the former, the F-22 and the C-17 are the first to go. But future conflict will require more, smaller carriers and littoral ships, smaller combat units, consolidation of the Special Forces, unmanned aircraft, and lighter, quicker, more lethal force structures and weapons systems.

Even more important, though, is the rapid advancement of mid-level ground combat officers experienced in the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts who have pioneered in the transition away from traditional nation-state conflicts with great armies meeting in the field to the nontraditional, indigenous counterinsurgency warfare that will continue to characterize 21st century conflict as far into the future as we can see.

Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator, is scholar in residence and Wirth Chair professor at the University of Colorado.

James Jay Carafano:

Being compared to Robert McNamara is probably the last thing any defense secretary wants. History will regard Robert Gates far differently, particularly in one important respect. Gates, to his credit, never lost sight of the imperative that nations should use force only when it is in their vital national interests — and that a nation’s leaders should not disregard national interests just because the road to victory becomes more difficult than expected. McNamara lost his bearings early on in Vietnam — moving from looking for a cheap win, to trying not to lose, to convincing himself that that the war could not be won. Gates has been a rock on both Iraq and Afghanistan. If America loses on either front, it will not be his fault.

That said, Gates’s legacy also includes much that may lead to other less-than-desirable comparisons. Future historians may note similarities to Harold Brown, Jimmy Carter’s defense secretary, who let the military “hollow.” Brown presided over defense budgets too small to pay for current operations, maintain a trained and ready force, and prepare for the future. Gates has traveled that same path. As a result, “Without immediate attention, the military faces a major impending crisis.” That’s according to William J. Perry, co-chair of the congressionally-chartered Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel and a former defense secretary.

Gates’s most recent pronouncements that the Pentagon needs to reform its antiquated logistics practices and restructure pay and benefits are on target. These are tough issues to take on, unlikely to be solved before he walks out the door in 2011. Furthermore, if the manner in which he has tackled procurement reform is any indicator, it’s possible the cure will be worse than the disease. Gates backed the procurement reform legislation put forward but Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman. Yet this approach added as much bureaucracy as it tried to cut through. Gates’s policy to reduce the percentage of contractors in the government workforce is a metric in search of a purpose — there is no rationale at all behind the idea. Splitting up the LOGCAP contract in Afghanistan just made the delivery of services more expensive and less efficient. Cutting the F-22 made no sense.

To gain efficiencies and maintain capability, the next secretary will have to do much better. And the challenges will be daunting. The top six items on his or her to-do list:

1.      Win in Afghanistan.

2.      Overcome the risk-averse mindset at the Department of Defense. An acquisition system that penalizes risk-taking leads to risk-averse behavior patterns, culmi­nating in programmatic paralysis.

3.      Increase the overall modernization budget to $200 billion by 2014. Even if the Pentagon can plow every saved cent back into defense, it won’t be enough.

4.      Fix a clunky logistics system — saving up to $32 billion.

5.      Get rising personnel costs — forecast to increase as much as 8 percent annually — under control.

6.      Convince Congress to exercise self-restraint. Congress has a propensity to micromanage defense acquisitions, impose politically-driven earmarks and exercise oversight irresponsibly.

If the next secretary accomplishes all these tasks, then Gates will look a lot better in the rearview mirror. If these tasks remain undone, Gates’s legacy will be seen as the prelude to the next military disaster.

James Jay Carafano is director of the Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

Kori Schake:

I’m a Gates fan, but the article gives him credit for things he actually hasn’t done, like making “drastic cuts” in defense or changing the culture of the Pentagon. He did not return “rational analysis” to defense planning, as his extensive Quadrennial Defense Review (which is the blueprint for Defense Department spending across the coming 4 years) bears little relationship to his budget. He did not change the baroque procurement system — Congress forced changes to the system in response to the very visible failure of the Air Force tanker deal. He did not move to cut defense spending until it became clear Congress was about to do it for him, and the changes he has proposed are marginal to the $664 billion annual budget of the department. And he did not revolutionize the Army by forcing promotion of innovative colonels; the Army was itself bringing forward the junior leaders tested in combat and created the intellectual environment for innovation to perk up from the field. He has justifiably fired people when they failed to do their jobs, but their failures also occurred on his watch and he must bear some responsibility for those.

What Gates has done — and for which we should all be grateful — is return calm competence to the management of the U.S. Defense Department. After the tumult and intemperance of the Rumsfeld era, Gates calmed the waters by playing team sports, with his cabinet colleagues and with the military leadership. He made winning the
wars America is fighting his priority and focused his efforts on speeding equipment to the field, promoting successful combat leaders in the senior ranks, and building support for sensible policies that advance the war effort. It sounds trivial when put in that perspective: the man is just doing his job. What stands out so much in discussing the success of Robert Gates is just how exceptional that is. His predecessor didn’t do his job well, nor do most of his current cabinet colleagues. One can only hope the lionization of Secretary Gates is an early indicator that managerial competence is coming back into fashion.

Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor of international security studies at the United States Military Academy.

Michael O’Hanlon:

By virtually all accounts, Secretary Gates has been one of the most successful people to hold the top Pentagon job since its creation 60-plus years ago. He has a great number of admirers and few detractors. He puts the country, and the responsibility of the job, and the troops, above his own ego. Yet he also has the confidence and poise to handle the job very well. In approach and style, in fact, he is almost un-dislikeable, whether among those who know and work with him or among those who watch him from a greater distance.

Gates has a number of concrete accomplishments to his credit already too. He has calmed nerves during the Iraq force drawdown, helped ease the transition from Bush to Obama foreign policy more generally, managed a slowly strengthening relationship with Pakistan, made some difficult defense reforms, and kept his eye on other issues like the rise of China as well.

All that said, it is simply too soon to forecast his legacy. For one thing, a year is a long time, and I for one wouldn’t be surprised to see him stay all the way through 2011. Second, the trajectory of the one major war that may define his tenure more than any other issue — the conflict in Afghanistan — cannot yet be predicted. Yes he helped the United States succeed in Iraq. But the new strategy characterized by a surge of American forces there was in fact decided upon before he took the job, and implemented primarily by Gen. David Petraeus (and Amb. Ryan Crocker in support) thereafter. His defense budget cuts to date have been reasonable but not particularly historic in significance or sweep.

So while Gates currently is poised to be seen as one of America’s very best secretaries of defense ever, it is far too soon to reach that conclusion with confidence.

Michael O’Hanlon is director of research at the Brookings Institution.

Todd Harrison:

Secretary Gates has certainly changed the way the Pentagon does business. He has displayed an impressive ability to lead the department in a new direction and to hold people accountable, firing them if necessary. After taking over in 2006, he quickly shifted the focus of the department to fighting and winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so much that he has been criticized for focusing too much on the current fights at the expense of preparing for future threats. He brought the same focus and accountability to the defense budget, canceling a number of programs that were over budget or underperforming. He’s taken on a variety of special interests within the Pentagon, the Congress, and the defense industry, and has started a crusade of sorts against waste and inefficiency.

Secretary Gates has not been acting like someone packing up to leave, but rather like a defense secretary prepping the battlefield for a larger budget fight looming on the horizon. He has made significant progress in preparing the department for the possibility of a flat or declining defense budget and the difficult trades between personnel costs, force structure, and modernization plans that will ensue. It is this larger budget fight that requires a leader with the kind of credibility with Congress and grasp of the issues that Gates possesses. If he does decide to leave sometime next year, he will be hard to replace.

Todd Harrison is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Larry Korb:

In calling Robert Gates the most revolutionary leader in the Pentagon since Robert McNamara, Fred Kaplan not only overstates Gates’s real accomplishments, he ignores the secretary who changed the way the Pentagon does business and fights wars more than any secretary — that is, Melvin Laird, who was secretary of defense from 1969 to 1973.

In his four years at the helm, over the unanimous opposition of the military leaders and many in Congress, Laird withdrew more than 500,000 troops from Vietnam by establishing the policy of Vietnamization, ended the draft, created the All-Volunteer Military and the Total Force, and developed weapons systems like the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 aircraft and cruise missiles, which are still in the force and provided the foundation for winning the Cold War. He also brought weapons systems cost growth until control by instituting a “fly before you buy” concept. And he did this while bringing defense spending down by 25 percent in real terms so that the United States could deal with issues like the environment and the rising cost of social security without bankrupting the country.

Gates does deserve credit for getting the Pentagon to buy more drones and MRAPs, and for implementing Rumsfeld’s decision to stop production of the F-22 at 187 (actually, Rumsfeld said 184). However, he continues to increase defense spending in real terms despite America’s massive federal debt. Moreover, while he has raised questions about the big issues like the number of aircraft carriers or the role of the Marine Corps, he has not followed up by taking decisive action.

In fact, when it comes to these issues, Gates told Fred Kaplan: “I may be bold, but I am not crazy.” Well by this standard, McNamara and Laird were crazy, and the nation is better off because they were.

Larry Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, is senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Brian Fung is an editorial researcher at FP.

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