Gates tenure at the Pentagon was surely a frustrating one at times. He was named in November, 2006 to replace Donald Rumsfeld who had lost credibility on Capitol Hill with both Democrats and Republicans. President Bush had offered him the position of director of National Intelligence in 2005, but he declined, choosing to remain as president of Texas A&M University.
A former director of the CIA, Gates has now served 8 presidents in various defense and foreign policy jobs. He was nominated largely because of his proven management skills, as well as the probability of smooth sailing during his Senate confirmation hearing. He was confirmed 95-2 and took office in December, 2005
Almost immediately, Gates was caught up in the raging debate over whether to send tens of thousands of more troops to Iraq in order to quell the violence raging at that time. He received high marks from many in Congress for his advocacy of the surge which proved to be a success. He presided over the first troop withdrawals from Iraq in 2008.
His retention by the Obama administration as defense secretary was a tribute to his popularity in Congress and his ability to build consensus among the Pentagon’s military leadership. President Obama came to rely on his judgment, siding with him in the early days of his administration when the review of our involvement in Afghanistan split the White House between those who wanted to add thousands more troops and those who wanted to substantially reduce our presence there. Gates wanted more than the 30,000 troops the president eventually sent and cautioned against setting a deadline for withdrawal. But Gates had proven himself a team player in the Bush administration and he gave President Obama the same kind of support despite disagreeing with him.
While there have been some controversies during his tenure, including his firing of General McKiernan from command in Afghanistan in 2009 and scandalous conditions discovered at Walter Reed military hospital, the defense secretary has steered clear of major problems that might have distracted him from his duties.
Currently, Gates is warning against withdrawing our forces too quickly from Afghanistan. He told a soldier on his farewell to the troops in Afghanistan that “we’ve still got a ways to go and I just think we shouldn’t let up on the gas too much at least for the next few months.”
Gates supports the view that any reductions in troops this year should be minimal as we attempt to consolidate gains made in the field against the Taliban. But with the death of Osama bin Laden and the huge budget deficit being run by the government, pressure coming from both sides of the aisle might change that calculation. However, he believes that any cuts this year should be made up mostly of support personnel, telling reporters in Afghanistan that “I would try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on — I think that’s a no-brainer.” It may be self-evident, but war weariness among the voters and a nervous Congress that sees expenditures in Afghanistan as a prime area for budget cutting might make Gates’ words moot.
The same could be said for cutting the defense budget. Gates has been charged by President Obama to trim another $400 billion in defense outlays over the next decade. This is on top of the $150 billion cut already. During a commencement address at Notre Dame University, Gates made it clear there was no substitute for the “hard power” supplied by the US military to deter aggressors and that our review of defense needs must keep in mind that “the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military,” must not be compromised.
This is one battle that Gates will not have to fight. His successor, current CIA chief Leon Panetta, is far more pliant and is not expected to put up the same kind of fight Gates might have over budget cuts. Gates was impressed with Panetta’s defense of agency personnel from Eric Holder’s attempts to target agents who participated in interrogations. But Panetta is far more partisan and liberal than Gates and can be expected to carry water for Democrats in 2012.
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