Foreign Policy

Robert Gates' Inconspicuous Virtues

Replacing the defense secretary won't be easy


Every new year is supposed to be an occasion for new hope, but 2011 hasn't even begun and already there is cause for regret. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is planning to step down next year, and his departure will leave the capital even more short of the kind of people it needs: grownups.

That's one reason he is where he is. Incoming presidents normally replace all cabinet officers. But Barack Obama was smart enough to see there was no one better suited to the job. Over the objections of some liberals, he asked Gates to stay.

If you need a reminder of Gates' virtues, think back to the antics of his predecessor. Glib, cocksure, and dismissive of criticism, Don Rumsfeld insisted on invading Iraq with a force too small to secure the country, shrugged off the resulting chaos ("freedom's untidy"), and airily ordered brutal treatment of Guantanamo inmates. "I stand for 8-10 hours a day," he wrote. "Why is standing limited to four hours?"

Gates, by contrast, is a model of restraint—careful, allergic to wisecracks, and in full control of his ego. That does not make him mealy-mouthed or timid. In fact, he's unusually forthright and not averse to making controversial decisions.

But he bases them on a solid grasp of how the world works, not wishful thinking or half-baked ideological preconceptions. And he keeps his bearings when things don't go his way.

During his 2006 confirmation hearings, President George W. Bush's nominee refused to gloss over the failures of the Bush administration in Iraq. Asked if the U.S. was winning the war, Gates answered, "No, sir." Asked if the invasion was a good idea, he declined to endorse it.

Last week provided more examples of Gates' sober approach. After WikiLeaks released a trove of Pentagon documents last summer, he said the consequences "are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners." So when the group published 250,000 State Department documents, creating a political uproar, he could have hyped his fears. But he did the opposite.

"Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time," Gates said at a Pentagon briefing. "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."

Gates has challenged what he calls the Pentagon's "culture of endless money." He killed the F-22 fighter, which the Air Force dearly wanted. He ordered the closure of the Joint Forces Command, prompting The New York Times to note, "Pentagon officials could not recall a time when a major command was shut down and vanished off the books."

When it came to "don't ask, don't tell," Gates acted with both deliberation and resolve. He insisted that the issue be handled without haste and with due respect for the unique culture of the military. He commissioned a survey of attitudes in the ranks—which found that most service members expect repeal would not have a harmful effect.

When a few senators urged deference to the negative attitudes of some personnel, Gates replied, "I can't think of a single precedent in American history of doing a referendum of the American armed forces on a policy issue. Are you going to ask them if they want 15-month tours? Are you going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq?" He has great respect for men and women in uniform, but he understands that in our system, the ultimate authority lies with civilians.

Unlike some, he sees war as a last resort, if that. When the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was raised in 2008, he said, "Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need."

Even when Gates may be wrong on policy, such as his support last year for a troop surge in Afghanistan, there is no reason to doubt his good faith. He obviously makes such decisions with a full appreciation of the costs, the benefits, and the best arguments on either side—as you might expect of someone who, while working for the Central Intelligence Agency, marched against the Vietnam War.

Gates' most important qualities—patience, persistence, deep knowledge, and humility—make him easy to overlook among the zealots and camera hogs in Washington. Those attributes become conspicuous only when they are gone.


NEXT: Primitive Thinking

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  1. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    1. A stupid comment is not a comment, stupid. LOL


      1. Bot becomes a farce to be reckoned with which!

      2. The bots are now wittier than Chonymax.

    2. Maybe so, but evidence of absence is evidence of absence, is it not?

  2. All the grownups in Washington are “broken.”

    1. You’re beginning to understand the true meaning of “It’s for the children.”

      1. Yes, but at the end of the day, there will be pushback.

        1. When moning comes, there will be blowback.

          1. And then, during brunch, a light snack.

  3. Yeah, Gibbs is a big improvement over Rumsfled. Rumsfled should have been Bush’s press secretary-that’s what conservatives liked about him anyway-the way he would occasionally bitchslap the press. Policywise he let his ginormous ego get in the way of making good decisions. I’m surprised he wasn’t fired after the “you go to war with the Army you’ve got, not the Army you want” crack to the troop in Kuwait. He was saying it to a unit that had retrained for months from a doctrinal Armored Cavalry role to the counterinsurgency fight in Iraq and he said it in response to a question about uparmored vehicles despite the fact that they were fielding brand new LMTVs which had been bought to send to Iraq with that unit, but which were not uparmored.

    1. I’m surprised he wasn’t fired after the “you go to war with the Army you’ve got, not the Army you want” crack to the troop in Kuwait.

      That’s a statement of fact, not a crack.

  4. Let me know when Gates is prepared to walk into Obama’s office and tell him
    “Sir, we cannot win in Afghanistan. Announce a withdrawal now or accept my resignation. I’ve called a press conference in 1/2 hour to announce the results of this meeting.”

    1. You just read an article about how Gates is one of the few adults in Washington, and now you expect him to be a child and hold his breath until he gets his way?

      1. Only a child believes in Santa Claus and the possibility of victory in Afghanistan.

      2. The children are just fine with a government of children.

  5. The F-22 has not been killed. There are 180+ in service. What was canceled was an additional buy of 20.

  6. OK, I totally did not see this coming: an article in “Reason” praising a government official while that government official was still in office.

    I agree with all the “upside” praise, but let’s not forget the downside: It’s Gates, and Obama, who have given us the “forever war” in Afghanistan. Thanks to Gates, and Obama, surely hundreds, and probably thousands, of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been killed, either for being “suspicious” or for standing next to someone regarded as “suspicious.” Spending $100 billion a year to slaughter the innocents? Not really a bargain, IMHO.

    1. Maybe Gates’ successor can figure out how to slaughter innocents for only $50B/year. How can we know yet?

    2. Obama would continue the war with or without Gates and you know it.

  7. Christ, Chapman, you can get off your knees now. I think he’s gone limp.

    Aside from his to you admirable position that the Bush Administration f’d up the early years of the Iraq War — ha ha, as if any government anywhere hadn’t f’d up the early years of any war, war being the unpredictable kind of thing it is — what is it that gets you so hot about Gates? His most excellent demeanor? Do you admire the President, too, for his sexy baritone and well-defined pecs?

    You should write this kind of stuff for the New York Times. Long on admiring characterization, lists of how his philosophy coincides with yours, but a bit short on facts supporting how, for example, he might win wars faster and cheaper, which the naive might think is the actual job of the Secretary of Defense.

  8. I guess what passes for Virtue in Washington is “not a reckless, out of control, party hack who wants to get us into another war and spend a trillion dollars a month on it”.

  9. Gates I think is following orders with Afghanistan. If Obama told him tomorrow to work up a disengagement plan and have it on his desk next week, that’s what Gates would do.

    Obama has been very, very lucky with his foreign policy establishment, of whom only one notable character – Clinton – isn’t a Bush holdover of some kind.

    I really worry about who will replace Gates when he goes. Obama has effectively put himself in a bubble-chamber, once the National Security establishment is also under the bubble, the idiocy I think will really ramp up with these people not just calling the shots, but also having to manage the miseries they dream up. It will be a disaster and if there will be any cover for Clinton to punch out and run a primary in 2012, it will be after viewing the rubble leftover from Gates’ departure.

    Which brings up interesting point. Who – that’s has the necessary Lefty Seal of Approval – should Obama nominate to be his Defense Secretary? On the Dems side of the aisle, there is paucity of competence there…I really don’t have any names. Any ideas? Bueller? Bueller?

    1. It will probably be Michelle Flournoy (currently among the top 3 or 4 people at the DoD and whom the establishment seems to like well enough) or less likely Richard Danzig (who was Navy Secretary under Clinton, – so also with establishment cred – and he was one of Obama’s chief advisors (if not the chief) on National security issues during the campaign)

      1. Mother…..tell your children not to walk my way

  10. Hooray for the secretary of war.

  11. Tangential nit-picking time.

    So when the group published 250,000 State Department documents…

    That’s not really what happened. Wikileaks obtained 250,000 documents, and handed them over to several press outlets. Wikileaks published whatever those organizations decided to publish, along with any included edits and redactions. Last I knew, the number of cables actually published by Wikileaks was around 1,000 or so.

    1. Stop it! You’re ruining my narrative!

  12. Does Gates have a PR firm that paid you to write this? Our current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan make very little sense except in the context of “endless war.”

  13. Standing for more than four hours is your example of “brutal”? You’re joking, right?

  14. Wow, if you think that survey of the ranks measured anything, other than the ability of our fine troops to tell which way the wind is blowing…

  15. I’ve heard that Chuck Hagel was previously considered for the job. So maybe one adult will be replaced with another.

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