Shadow Government

Gates makes his exit

Today marks Robert Gates’ last day as secretary of defense. On a day that will feature its share of testimonials from others, let me offer my own. My view is no doubt colored by the fact that I served him for more than two years, but, then again, the experience of witnessing his leadership and ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Today marks Robert Gates’ last day as secretary of defense. On a day that will feature its share of testimonials from others, let me offer my own. My view is no doubt colored by the fact that I served him for more than two years, but, then again, the experience of witnessing his leadership and decision-making up close and often behind closed doors clarified more than it distorted.

Gates came to the Pentagon with a mandate to focus on Iraq. Many at the time, aware of his involvement in the Iraq Study Group, feared that he had been hired to liquidate the United States’ investment in Iraq. We soon realized that Gates did indeed want to end the war in Iraq, but in victory rather than defeat. Turning the war around is likely to be seen as the signal achievement of his tenure as secretary of defense. If victory in Iraq is to be squandered, it will be left to his successors to do so.

Gates also deserves great credit for enforcing high standards of accountability within the Defense Department, rewarding those whose performance warranted it, and removing those whose actions demanded it. He also strengthened civilian leadership of the department, often in ways that were subtle and out of the limelight. In 2008, for example, he signed the National Defense Strategy over the objections of the civilian and military leaders of the services. Gates believed the Defense Department needed to make tradeoffs and accept additional risk; the service chiefs and secretaries were unwilling to do so. Similarly, Gates took an important step to build up much-needed expertise for national security by inaugurating the Minerva Initiative, which provides grants to universities to build much-needed intellectual capital in the social sciences to help national defense. It is an initiative that deserves to be supported and expanded.

In other areas, his legacy is at best uncertain. How he will be judged on Afghanistan is very much bound up with the outcome of the war. However, to the extent that the Obama administration has made poor choices in Afghanistan, history will likely judge that things would have been worse without Gates’ advocacy and advice. The same is true on the areas of missile defense and nuclear arms control: Things likely would have been worse without Gates’ moderating influence.

Gates leaves other tasks incomplete. For years, but particularly over the last year and a half, he has spoken at length about the need to reform the Defense Department’s institutions and structure, but much action needs to accompany those words. Leon Panetta would be well advised to follow through with the transformation agenda.

It is hazardous to predict the verdict of history. In time, the cheers of adulation fade, and the jeers give way to empathy, understanding, and sometimes respect. It is a safe bet, however, that Robert Gates will be judged among the nation’s best secretaries of defense. The nation owes him a debt of gratitude, for it is better off for his service.

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