The Mystery of Bob Gates, aka "America's Best Defense Secretary"
Posted by Michael Cohen
Justin Logan and Ben Friedman have a must read in Foreign Policy about the myth of Bob Gates as America's best defense secretary. It's worth reading the entire piece, but this section really jumped out at me:
The secretary has an uncanny knack for saying things that get him credit for what he will not do, as defense analyst Lawrence Korb has noted. Gates claimed it's crazy to send ground forces in large numbers to Asia or the Middle East after advocating precisely that in Afghanistan. He said that diplomacy is underfunded compared with defense, but wouldn't surrender funds for the State Department . . . He just gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute saying that saving money on defense requires re-examining roles and missions -- two days after giving another speech at the University of Notre Dame claiming that all of the Defense Department's roles and missions are essential.
This has always been my great confusion about Bob Gates. He brags about defense cuts at the same that defense budgets have continued to expand under his watch. He has done precious little to reform the contracting process that squanders so much in the way of taxpayer dollars; his major cuts in defense programs have actually not amounted to much; his QDR simply reiterated the DC conventional wisdom that American leadership must be preeminent on the global stage and it must be guaranteed by a military that continues to take on more and more responsibilities - many of which should belong to civilian agencies.
I suppose in the constricted world of DC policy debates this is somehow what defines a maverick or an "out-of-the-box thinker" but in reality it's the profile of a guy who, on defense issues, has basically kicked the can down the road. I wrote about this a bit in 2009:
Secretary of Defense Gates caused a buzz in 2007 when he declared the need for a “dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security.” But nowhere did he call for the Pentagon to shed any responsibilities. Indeed, in his next breath, Gates made clear “I’ll be asking for yet more money for Defense this year.” At the same time, he noted the incongruous sight of “field artillerymen and tankers building schools and mentoring city councils.” Gates remarked that these skills will need to be “institutionalized and retained” in the military.
As Logan and Friedman note the gap between what Gates receives credit for, and what he's actually done is bizarrely wide.
On Afghanistan this story is even worse; for a guy who seemingly has the knowledge to understand that it's a bad idea to send large numbers of ground forces into a Middle Eastern or Asian country . . . he presided over both the Iraq surge and was the biggest civilian proponent in the Obama Administration of expanding the US presence in Afghanistan.
And right now Gates is doubling down on a bad policy by running around Afghanistan telling every reporter in sight that it is not the right time to begin drawing down troops from the fight or even opening political negotiations with the Taliban. He's doing this at the exact moment that the President and his national security advisors are having a debate about whether and how many troops will actually be drawn down from Afghanistan in July. Seems like an odd thing for a Cabinet Secretary to be putting his thumb on the scale in public while the President is trying to make a vital national security decision.
Ask yourself DA reader, can you imagine any other Cabinet Secretary publicly advocating for a position on an issue being debated at that exact moment by the President of the United States? it's almost as if Gates thinks he's a four star general and thus immune from the traditional rules of public comment on presidential decision-making on matters of national security.
But hey he's the greatest defense secretary so perhaps I should just get with the program.