Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

General: Hey, Newsweek, Gates sure looked different to us in the Air Force

Earlier this week I highlighted a Newsweek profile of Defense Secretary Gates. I am a fan of Gates, but he certainly seems to have a different reputation with the Air Force, in which he once served. I am especially surprised by the comment here that Gates quashed dissenting views. But take it away, General Dunlap: ...


Earlier this week I highlighted a Newsweek profile of Defense Secretary Gates. I am a fan of Gates, but he certainly seems to have a different reputation with the Air Force, in which he once served.

I am especially surprised by the comment here that Gates quashed dissenting views. But take it away, General Dunlap:

By Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, USAF (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

No doubt Defense Secretary Robert Gates is brilliant, hard-working, and eminently deserves much admiration for his patriotic service. But he is also an extremely clever CIA veteran, well-schooled in creating media hype when and where he wants. Hubris can, however, overtake even the savviest, and Newsweek‘s report of Secretary Gates’ invitation to study his speeches may be an example.

Recall his March 2008 address to the Heritage Foundation where he mocked anyone concerned about future conflict as suffering from "Next-War-itis," and further insisted that the only viable weapons’ programs were those that "show some utility and relevance" to irregular campaigns like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Newsweek‘s newshounds celebrate all that, but I worry a lot about Secretary Gates’ disquieting penchant for indulging near-term wants (and perceived needs) at the expense of long-term strategic interests. That’s the kind of thinking that got Wall Street in trouble. 

In any event, Secretary Gates’ words soon proved ironic. Unless he was considering using nuclear weapons to combat insurgents, his speech just didn’t sync with his stated rationale for firing the Air Force secretary and chief of staff only a few months later. By then attention to possible "next-war" scenarios and Cold War-style issues apparently were hardly "‘irrelevant" as Secretary Gates roundly condemned Air Force leaders for allowing a "decline in the Air Force’s nuclear mission focus." 

Moreover, as Newsweek records, Secretary Gates rightly talks a lot about efficiencies, but does his quest apply to everyone? For example, he repeatedly increased the Army’s size, supposedly to "enable the nation to meet its commitments." It isn’t clear, however, that the enormously costly growth was really needed. Based on Army figures reported in USA Today, one can quickly calculate that of the 547,000 active duty soldiers, nearly 238,000 have never deployed for even a single combat tour, and an additional 150,000 have done so just once

The magazine lauds Secretary Gates’ loathing of the "perks" he thinks military leaders get, but fails to mention that generals aren’t millionaires — as Gates himself became following his government service. Moreover, in a society where people make millions for singing a song or throwing a ball, isn’t it churlish — and unwise — not to support fully the relatively small number of people we must depend upon to ensure our security? Remember, the American people have considerably more confidence in military leaders than any others. 

Interestingly, Secretary Gates (who, by the way, yachted on the Potomac this week at government expense) appears to have a surprisingly robust sense of entitlement about his own worth. Before becoming Secretary, he enjoyed lucrative corporate board seats and charged upwards of $16,000 for a single speech. He also collected a huge $525,000 compensation package from taxpayer-supported Texas A & M University. I’m sure he earned it, but shouldn’t a general’s warfighting insights that might save someone’s son or daughter be as valued as overseeing Aggie football prospects?

Let’s delve a bit deeper into the matter implicit in Newsweek‘s coverage: When does exploiting one’s public service become unseemly? You be the judge. After his CIA career Secretary Gates penned a best-seller about his former employers, complete with cover blurbs describing him as drawing upon "his access to classified information" to produce the "ultimate insider’s book" filled with "details of agency failures" and the "inner workings" of "spy games." Definitely not Wikileaks, but…

Returning to Secretary Gates’ speeches, an odd aspect of them may provide further illumination as to why the Air Force "bugs" him so much. This is no small matter, as on his watch the service has declined markedly in size, reputation, and combat power. Its aging fleet causes soon-to-retire Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula to warn this week that we now "have a geriatric Air Force." The current issue of Defense News likewise characterizes America’s dwindling inventory of bombers as a "puny force against any serious adversary."

And that’s in the face of the Pentagon’s own report that China is rapidly modernizing its air, space, and cyberspace capabilities. Mark my words, for all Newsweek‘s veneration of Gates’ budgetary visions, today’s thinking about defense spending is hobbled by the Pentagon’s inability to distinguish sufficiently between the serious challenge of irregular wars, and the need to deter truly existential threats posed by nation-states. 

Along that line, as effective as the MRAP and UAV systems that so excite Newsweek may be against Afghan tribesmen, they are still virtually sitting
ducks for a third-rate military armed with even primitive armor and air defenses. And a high-tech power would make short work of them.

Anyway, Secretary Gates’ speeches suggest he is still smarting from a dressing down he says he received from an Air Force general over forty years ago. Specifically, he repeatedly uses a story of a senior officer’s expletive-laden direction to then lowly 2nd Lt. Gates to devise better nuclear targeting as an illustration of the absurdity and witlessness of Air Force generals. What Secretary Gates omits (but reveals in his book) is that he was not exactly the typical junior officer during his brief stint in uniform. 

Indeed, he was already a CIA asset when he was placed in the Air Force as a result of what he murkily describes as "CIA sponsorship" and CIA "help." A plausible explanation then for the general’s supposed tongue-lashing may be understandable resentment at having a CIA-sponsored interloper thrust in his midst. He also might have been sending a message via young Gates to his Agency bosses about the quality of intelligence they were providing for nuclear targeting in those days. 

Speaking of messages, Secretary Gates is master of the mixed variety. Writing on leadership in Parameters a few years ago he claimed he was "impressed" by officers who wrote articles critiquing "sometimes bluntly-the way the service does business; to include judgments about senior leadership, both military and civilian." Insisting that doing so was "a sign of institutional vitality" he encouraged "every member of the military" to do the same. Was this simply a stratagem to flush out iconoclasts? "Every member of the military" evidently did not include Admiral Fallon or others who paid dearly for offering opinions differing from DOD’s approved script. It saddens me that in 34 years of active duty service I never saw alternate views crushed as thoroughly as during the Gates era. 

Could this be a key reason why the President received only General McChrystal’s version of a "military" option for Afghanistan last fall? Others could have been developed, including fleshed-out plans supporting Vice President’s Biden’s reported "CT plus" approach — which, I predict, we will eventually have to employ anyway.

Being Jesuit-trained, I know that the Church’s need for certitude about its saints mandates a canonization process that takes decades. Perhaps Newsweek could learn something from that.

General Dunlap recently retired from the Air Force. A distinguished graduate of the National War College, he now teaches law at Duke University and serves on the Board of Advisors for the Center for a New American Security.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1