When US Defense Secretary Robert Gates speculated on a 2011 retirement during an early August profile in Foreign Policy, the press that followed resembled a ticker-tape parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Washington insider Fareed Zakaria swooned over Gates to PBS’s Charlie Rose - “probably the best Defense Secretary in American history” - for his budget cuts and “stabilizing” influence on President Barack Obama's first term as commander-in-chief.
Foreign Policy gathered its own experts to cautiously but unanimously hail Gates’s legacy.
“By virtually all accounts, Secretary Gates has been one of the most successful people to hold the top Pentagon job since its creation 60-plus years ago,” said senior Brookings fellow and Pentagon booster Michael O'Hanlon. “So while Gates currently is poised to be seen as one of America's very best secretaries of defense ever, it is far too soon to reach that conclusion with confidence.”
To a point one can understand Gates’s charm, if it can be called that. An adept wallflower, Gates publicly frees himself of ego knowing that military decisions end up in his domain. Operating below the radar whether in office or trying to retire into anonymity, he deploys a frequent tactic of feigning his intentions until the last moment. Not only is Gates buffered by Washington elite, he literally hides in the shadow of his media umbrella.
But Gates is almost treated as if he’s perfect - and is anyone really perfect? His reputation amongst the White House, Pentagon, Congress, and, thus, the mainstream US media collectively wards away devils advocating an opposing viewpoint. This environment makes the task necessary by default. His satisfaction in being “the ultimate CIA insider” provides additional motive, and a New York Times report chronicling Obama’s war-schooling offers a raw example of Gates’s MO.
Claiming that he advocated reprimanding former general Stanley McChrystal after his Rolling Stone debacle, Gates recalled of installing General David Petraeus: “My first reaction was if McChrystal with his experience and his contacts and his knowledge were pulled out, that could have real consequence for the war. It never even occurred to me — I kicked myself subsequently — to move Petraeus over there. When the president raised that with me in a private meeting, it was like a light bulb went on — yes, that will work.”
Obama must be a genius for out-thinking Gates, but the more realistic answer is a bluff. Petraeus, as the architect of Afghanistan's current strategy and America’s most polished general, was the only option to fill McChrystal’s void, leading this analyst and others to predict his promotion as McChrystal flew back to Washington for the last time. That Gates hadn’t considered deploying his closest confidant after influencing Petraeus's promotions in Iraq and Central Command (CENTCOM) is impossible.
So what else does he lie about?
The New York Times cites a generally-held theory that Gates, as an initial member of the 2006 Iraqi Study Group, opposed a surge of forces, only to “change his mind” once nominated as Defense Secretary. The Times attributed this reversal to “being able to change his views based on those pesky ’facts on the ground,’” when deception is a more plausible cause. Now, as the effects of Iraq’s surge come under increasing scrutiny, Gates has become a vocal supporter of a post-2011 force in an otherwise silent White House. Though he prefers to monitor the fray he won’t hesitate to lobby when necessary.
Gates’s strategy in Afghanistan follows the same script. Reserving his opinion amid a leaky Pentagon, Gates was one of the last White House officials to publicly cast his vote for a military surge during Obama’s fall 2009 review. Again he feigned resistance to a military footprint, only to insist afterward that Obama had made the right decision and that US strategy in Afghanistan is sound. This is standard operating procedure: opposition until decision time, followed by "second thoughts" and a “change of mind” to escalation.
Though Gates claims he will revise US strategy in December if it flops, his actions indicate support for Petraeus’s delay of Obama’s July 2011 deadline. Not long ago Gates said that he believes the American and European publics would be patient if Obama’s surge demonstrates progress. Only Western skepticism is growing, especially in the latest wake of political and economic scandals. Pakistan has been taken out of the war by its floods and now Afghan polling stations are closing because of deteriorating security in the south and east.
Yet Gates just returned from Afghanistan and feels “encouraged” - so does Petraeus. With the duo at work, the Pentagon will spare no effort in selling its “progress” to extend a losing war.
While the US media has praised the so-called “Obama doctrine” of limited intervention, a strategy directed by Gates, good reason also exists to doubt its viability in America’s budding counterinsurgencies: Yemen and Somalia. Both exemplify Washington’s new discreet COIN where moderate non-military operations disguise predominate counter-terrorism: arming local security forces, training them with US Special Forces, and relying on a drone fleet and offshore Naval capabilities. These wars are kept in the dark so as to avoid attention from the local peoples and US public.
Problematically, insurgencies often demand more resources than this minimalist style of warfare allows. Yemen and Somalia’s conditions have deteriorated under Gates’s watch, especially Somalia from 2007 to the present, while increased US military support to Sana’a runs perpendicular to eroding relations with the northern Houthi rebels and southern Secessionist Movement. Petraeus’s Special Forces directive - surely overseen by Gates - only appears capable of killing terrorists, not resolving insurgencies.
Yet Gates draws no blame due to the fact that he never mentions Yemen or Somalia.
On second thought maybe he is one of America’s best Pentagon chiefs - war follows him everywhere. During the White House’s August briefing on Iran, reports described how Gates continues to promote military action and that Obama rebuffed his “red line” on Iran’s nuclear program. David E. Sanger of The New York Times reported, "Mr Gates's memo appears to reflect concerns in the upper echelons of the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well-prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed."
But many US and Israeli commanders warn against the disastrous consequences of a military strike on Iran, at least publicly. Maybe the Pentagon is once again feigning under Gates’s command, or maybe the Pentagon hopes to conceal the possibility that it isn’t sure what to do either.
Given his past and present history in the CIA and Pentagon, Gates clearly relishes operating as a power behind the throne, enjoying “the influence and respect he commands in Congress and inside the executive branch." To maintain a low profile and avoid legitimate blame, this Carolingian distributes credit to others while keeping his own policy a mystery, and employs flattery to deflect attention away from US foreign policy.
“He’s got a very full plate of very big issues,” Gates explained of Obama to The New York Times, “and I think he does not want to create the impression that he’s so preoccupied with these two wars that he’s not addressing the domestic issues that are uppermost in people’s minds. From the first, he’s been decisive and he’s been willing to make big decisions.”
It may not seem so to the majority of Americans primarily concerned with domestic issues, but to those who assign equal importance to foreign policy, Obama’s handling of America's wars has generated the impression that he’s neither preoccupied with nor in command of these conflicts. On the contrary, America’s domestic woes are providing the Pentagon with the shadow it desires.
Gates came from the shadows and wants to leave that way - to leave behind open-ended wars. By cutting defense spending of the conventional Cold War era and promoting more combat officers trained in counterinsurgency, Washington has been able to expand a cheaper, unconventional militarization of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The outlier of Iran further justifies a US military buildup across the Gulf. Gates seeks to fight less big wars and more small wars, except without the proper scale of operations, America may do little else than kill terrorists for decades while the states that harbor them remain fragile.
This policy perpetuates global military expansion, the objective Gates has in mind. He may have his good qualities in running a bureaucracy, but as a strategist and truth-teller America could do better.
And what could illuminate Gates’s shadow more than the possibility that he won’t resign? Pentagon officials claim to have been surprised at the news coverage. One senior official remarked, “I could not understand why this was such a newsmaker. The comments he made to [Fred] Kaplan are completely consistent with what he has said. There is no news here.”
Sure enough, at a press conference weeks later, Gates was on form after musing on retirement: "As far as I'm concerned, all I will say is that I'm going to be here longer than either I or others thought.” He also told reporters “the circumstances under which I would do that” - stay on for the next administration - “are inconceivable to me."
The same thing he told them in 2008.