The slow-motion retirement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who recently announced his intention to step aside at the end of 2011, offers a chance to take stock of his time at the helm of the Pentagon. It’s been an important, if imperfect, tenure. But Gates deserves credit and thanks for his sense of duty and commitment to something greater than self, namely, the country he has served for 45 years.
Any recap of Gates’ tenure has to begin and end with that sense of duty. It pays to recall that he took over at the Pentagon in the midst of a war that was spiraling out of control, against the howling headwinds unleashed by his predecessor’s controversial style and consequential decisions, and after the commander-in-chief had suffered a stinging defeat in the 2006 midterms. And then, when a new commander-in-chief with a new direction asked, Gates stayed on.
In a recent Foreign Policy profile, Gates explained, “I really didn’t want to be asked” to stay after President Obama’s victory. That’s because he knew if he were asked, he would not say no. “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 difficult to see how saying yes—either time—was self-serving.
The Bush-Obama handoff, in the middle hour of two wars, wasn’t fumbled, in large part, because of Gates, who carried out the successful surge strategy in Iraq and then helped plan the revised mission for Afghanistan.
It’s somewhat ironic that the surge happened under Gates. After all, he had been a part of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) before accepting President Bush’s call to return to Washington. And in 2006, the ISG was advocating something different than Bush’s troop surge. In fact, the commission called on the White House to launch a comprehensive diplomatic offensive to deal with the problems of Iraq, urged the president to “engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues” and tried to tether Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Declaring that “Military priorities in Iraq must change, with the highest priority given to the training, equipping, advising, and support mission and to counterterrorism operations,” the commission’s realist wise men concluded that “The ability of the United States to shape outcomes is diminishing.”
Gen. Petraeus proved otherwise, and Gates gave him the tools and time to do so.
On Afghanistan, Gates talked tough—and meant it—about the halfhearted commitment of many of America’s NATO allies. “We must not—we cannot—become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” he bluntly warned, adding that most NATO troops are simply “not trained in counterinsurgency,” which is the kind of war NATO is fighting in Afghanistan.
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