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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.
More from Scott Horton:
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