No Comment — November 20, 2008, 12:18 pm

Grading Gates

Reports are circulating this week that President-Elect Obama has interviewed Defense Secretary Robert Gates with a view towards inviting him to stay on in the Obama cabinet. This provides an opportunity to gauge Gates’s performance as secretary of defense for two years. In the eyes of many, the position of secretary of defense is the most powerful post in government after the presidency. The “secdef” commands resources that, in monetary terms alone ($439.3 billion in 2007), dwarf those of any other agency of the federal government—indeed, U.S. defense spending accounts for half or more of the total defense spending on the planet and a still larger portion of the spending on intelligence gathering. The secretary’s authority over the uniformed personnel and civilians who work for him is strong, owing to military discipline and a rigorous command-authority culture. Like no other figure in the cabinet, the secretary of defense carries the nation’s national security and defense burdens. Making the office of secretary a spoil of political victory, thus, is dangerous.

Robert Gates came to the office shortly after the 2006 midterm election, when voters issued a stern rebuke to President Bush due largely to his military misadventures. Leaders of the uniformed services were at the time issuing stern admonitions that the most powerful military apparatus in human history was “broken,” or very close to that, largely as a result of planning that dramatically underestimated the manpower and matériel costs needed to sustain a two-theater war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates was given the thankless task of turning this around in an administration hell-bent on politicizing military strategy and performance and committed to no principle more firm than that it never made mistakes. It’s hard to see how a cabinet officer could perform well in such an environment. Yet Robert Gates did, quickly winning the respect of defense experts on both sides of the aisle and of the men and women who served under him. In my mind, Gates has proven himself as the most successful cabinet appointee in the eight years of the Bush presidency. He may well be one of the very best secretaries of defense, just as Rumsfeld has locked in his title as the worst since the office was founded.

Obama is right to consider an invitation to Gates to stay on. This should not be justified by the need to appoint Republicans to the cabinet—although that is a legitimate consideration for the formation of a cabinet. But in Gates’s case, politics is an important consideration in a different sense. One of the great tragedies of the Rumsfeld era was an extraordinary degree of crass partisan politicization that went on, driven by the highly ideological coterie of neoconservatives who accompanied Rumsfeld into the Office of Secretary of Defense. For example, they would repeatedly denigrate senior officers of the joint staff with the comment that they were “Clinton generals” because they had risen up the ranks during the eight years of the Clinton administration—disregarding the fact that in the American military, officers rise through a rigorous peer review process. They assumed that senior appointments were political plums, to be doled out to faithful political retainers. And more dangerously, they then attempted, with much success, to wade into the appointments process penalizing those they considered ideologically suspect and promoting those they considered faithful. The result was a double blow to the morale of the officers corps, and a severely corrupting politicization of the Pentagon.

Of course, anyone who has read deeply in the history of the American Army and Navy from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries knows that the politicization of the officer corps has deep roots. It took a sustained struggle over half a century to avoid it and assure that military appointments and promotions occurred on a professional basis that rewarded competence, intelligence and efficiency—not loyalty and proximity to a coterie of political hacks.

But whereas Rumsfeld and his team marked a huge step backwards, Gates strove to resurrect the Pentagon’s old culture of professionalism. He insisted that his staff take a fresh look at things and provide answers and recommendations that suited the nation’s defense needs—whether they corresponded to the outline provided by Neocon thinktanks or not. He also adopted a new policy of candor and honesty in public speaking and in his remarks to Congress—resisting the temptation to which Rumsfeld regularly succumbed to tailor his remarks to the current themes of Republican politics, resulting in Orwellian rhetoric. Gates’s speeches are a study in contrast—rooted in broadly-shared values that underlie the defense establishment and sometimes openly questioning some of the excesses of his predecessor. Gates’s speeches reflect a strong and honorable view that the exercise of the nation’s war-making power must be kept above the fray of partisan politics, and that those who are deployed in the nation’s defense must understand they are acting on behalf of their country as a whole and not a political party.

To this must be added Gates’s pure administrative competence and sound judgment. A good example can be found in his handling of one of the messier problems that his predecessor created. Rather than plan properly for the level of force needed in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld chose to deploy severely inadequate uniformed forces and to make up for the difference with a secret army of defense contractors who were left essentially unmanaged and unintegrated into the force. Complaints about the situation by field commanders in Iraq met with a brush off or a rebuke under Rumsfeld. By contrast, Gates had his staff reevaluate the situation and take decisive steps to improve it. He acted throughout against a cold shoulder of indifference from the Bush White House and inattention approaching gross negligence from the Justice Department. In a recent study done by Human Rights First, in which I participated, the Department of Defense alone among the agencies of the Bush Administration, managed a positive grade. It earns a “B” overall, and very high marks for its initial response to the Nisoor Square incident.

Still, the HRF blueprint for ending contractor impunity notes plenty of room for improvement, even by the Pentagon. And there are many other areas where Gates’s management can stand for criticism. His slapdown directed towards the Air Force, while based on troubling facts, seemed a bit arbitrary. Moreover, while Gates gains points for insisting on higher levels of transparency and accountability across the Department, he should take the time to push that same agenda more rigorously with those immediately around him in the office of secretary of defense.

But in the annals of the Defense Department, Gates’s name will go down as a healer. His quiet professionalism and competence are exactly what is called for right now, and Barack Obama could not find a better secretary of defense.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Estimated temperature of Hell, according to two Spanish physicists ‘ interpretation of the Bible:

832°F

The ecosystems around Chernobyl, Ukraine, are now healthier than they were before the nuclear disaster, though radiation levels are still too high for human habitation.

A TSA agent in Seattle was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of women in the airport, a Maryland police officer was arrested for taking up-skirt photos of an off-duty colleague, and the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that taking up-skirt photos is legal in the state.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today