Robert Gates Resets His Clock

Fred Kaplan at Foreign Policy:

The interview was conducted July 12 in Gates’s office at the Pentagon, several weeks before he announced a sweeping series of cuts to key programs, including the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Excerpts:

Fred Kaplan: You may remember the last time I was here, which was late in 2007. You had one of these countdown meters. And I asked you at the time — I said, you know, there are some people on the Hill who would like you to stay for whatever the next term is. And this line of yours has been quoted a fair amount. You said, “Well, I never say never, but the circumstances under which that would happen are inconceivable to me.” “Inconceivable” is a pretty absolute word. So what happened? Why are you … here? Why did you stay?

Robert Gates: Once there started being speculation around that time that I might be asked to stay no matter who was elected, I confess that I started what ended up being eight- or nine-months-long covert action. And it was to try and build a wall of clarity that I did not want to stay high enough that nobody would ever ask me.

FK: (Laughs.) Well, “inconceivable” goes quite a ways up there.

RG: And I, you know, I was very consistent for a long period there in saying that, because I really didn’t want to be asked, knowing that if I were asked, I would say, “Yes.” For the same reason I never hesitated — you know, I wrestled with the [director of national intelligence] job a couple of weeks back in January of 2005. The instant [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley called me about taking this job, I said, “Yes.” I just — in the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, “No.”

And I felt the same way going into 2008 — that if somebody asked, I worried a lot about the baton getting dropped in the changeover between administrations. And so I knew if the president, whoever was elected president, asked me to stay that I would say, “Yes.” Now, you know, the timing was always sort of vague in my mind: six months, a year, just to provide a smooth transition and so on — [it] ended up being longer than that.

[…]

FK: So what would you hope would be your legacy of all this? I mean, are people looking back at the Gates era or whatever —

RG: Well, as a historian, I’m generally inclined to let the historians think about that. Or writers.

FK: Wait, you just contradicted yourself. If you are a historian, I mean, that makes you perfectly capable of commenting.

RG: (Laughs.) Yeah, but at some distance. You remember the old line [Chinese leader Zhou Enlai gave] when asked about the French Revolution?

FK: Too soon.

RG: Well, first of all, I never forget that the primary task that I was given when I took this job was to put Iraq in a better place. And the nation has been engaged in two wars every single day I have been secretary. So the outcome of those two wars I think will be huge elements people look at. And by the way, if I stay just until January —

FK: January of what?

RG: 2011.

FK: Mm, hmm.

RG: Nice try. (Laughs.) If I stay until January of 2011, I will have been in this job — I’m the 22nd secretary of defense, and I’ll have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors. And those four are Robert McNamara, Don Rumsfeld, Cap Weinberger, and Charles E. Wilson. (Laughter.)

I think the toughest thing in public life is knowing when to dance off the stage. And to leave when people say, “I wish you weren’t leaving so soon,” instead of “How the hell do we get that guy out of there?” And the other aspect of this is, like I said, two separate wars for every day I’ve been on the job is very wearing. And there’s a certain point at which you just run out of energy.

[Then there’s] this rebalancing and all these initiatives with respect to the budget, trying to get rid of programs that don’t measure up, aren’t needed, or at least cap them in terms of the numbers. And I suppose a third would be — and I certainly didn’t intend this when I came here — a rigorous reinforcement of the principle of accountability. It’s a very, very rare thing for a senior person to be fired in this town, and I’ve done a bunch.

Alan Mascarenhas at Newsweek:

In the dying months of the Bush administration, a weary Robert Gates took to surreptitiously carrying around a clock. Given by a sympathetic friend, it displayed the days remaining until Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, when he would be relieved of his duties as secretary of defense. Gates’s family has been thought to eagerly await the day the veteran of six presidential administrations could finally step down. The secretary himself scoffed at speculation he might stay on.

We all know how that panned out. Still, with today’s revelations in Foreign Policy magazine that Gates, 66, will retire sometime in 2011, the clock may soon be replaced by a well-earned gold watch.

[…]

The surprise, of course, is not that Gates is leaving, but that he stayed so long. With unfinished wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, he simply couldn’t bring himself to turn down the request he always feared was coming from President Barack Obama. “In the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, ‘No.’ ”

Even then, he initially expected to stay only a year. But he has since become an indispensable member of the administration, pressing reforms to the Pentagon budget and implementing Obama’s Afghanistan plan of trebling troop numbers to 100,000 with a view to commencing a drawdown next summer. Yesterday, General David Petraeus, commander of the joint U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan, stressed that stabilization would be gradual and refused to rule out requesting a delay in the withdrawal date.

As an expected reshuffle of administration personnel occurs after November’s midterms, Gates may well find 2011 is the best time to depart. Yet as the servant of a president potentially forced to fine-tune his Afghanistan strategy, he may just as easily find himself facing fresh calls to stick around. Of course, this is a man who obviously has changed his retirement plans before.

Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time:

Set your countdown clocks to 2011, when Robert Gates, Defense Secretary to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, plans to step down. “It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012,” he tells Foreign Policy, in an exclusive interview. “This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year.”

[UPDATE: Fred Kaplan, the author of the Foreign Policy article, emails to point out that Gates may be bluffing. Indeed Gates has done it before. Writes Kaplan:

Gates did not tell me that he is leaving in 2011. He said that he’d like to leave, and thinks he should leave, in 2011. However, I begin the piece by noting that, in my last interview with Gates, at the end of 2007, I asked him if he’d consider staying on in the next administration. He replied, at the time, that the circumstances under which he’d do that were “inconceivable.” So when I interviewed him for FP last month, I asked him what changed. He confessed that he’d been engaging in a “covert action.” He was telling everybody that he really wanted to go, in hopes that this would discourage the next president from asking him to stay – but all along he knew that if the next president did ask him to stay, he would.

Read the entire Kaplan piece here.]

Considering that the 2012 election season is set to begin at the end of 2010, this may suggest an early 2011 exit for Gates. Gates departure may be felt less on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where there are many cooks in the kitchen, than in his personal crusade to bring some level of rationality to the defense budget. It’s an uphill slog that now depends significantly on Gates own credibility and star power. Fareed Zakaria asks today, “Can anyone seriously question Gates’s ideas on the merits?” Probably not. But with Gates gone, it will be that much easier for the approriators and the lobbyists to gain, once again, the upper hand.

Peter Brookes and Mackenzie Eaglen at The Corner:

In the coming months, lots of people will be cranking up their computers and burning up the airwaves with commentary on the just-announced departure of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sometime in 2011.

Evaluating his legacy as SECDEF when he ultimately leaves next year will be important for the historical record, but the challenges his yet-to-be-named successor will face are more important.

For instance, there’s little doubt that the war in Afghanistan will still be a major focus in 2011 — not to mention the challenge of managing the White House’s mandated drawdown next summer. Don’t forget about Pakistan. Plus, with lots of American trainers likely still in Iraq next year, attention will need to be given to that region as well.

And there’s Iran, which will either be a nuclear-weapons state or darn close to being one by the time Gates leaves the E-Ring for the last time. Unfortunately, the current policy approach just isn’t making headway. The new secretary is going to face the less-than-amusing task of handling Tehran’s atomic ayatollahs.

Frank Gaffney at The Corner:

Secretary Gates has the unenviable task of presiding over the latest “hollowing-out of the military,” as Jimmy Carter’s Army chief of staff Edward C. “Shy” Meyer once described it. Even before the announcement by Gates, the Bush-appointed Republican technocrat kept on by President Obama, of his intention to cut $100 billion from the defense budget over the next five years, the secretary had already eliminated what were arguably each of the armed services’ highest-priority programs: the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the Navy’s DDG-1000, the Army’s Future Combat System, and the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

What do these have in common, besides their being crucial to the modernization of the sponsoring service? They are all indispensable to the projection of power by the United States. Secretary Gates has made it fairly clear that that’s not his priority; he wants to retool the military to fight today’s counterinsurgency operations and not much more. If history is any guide, the result is going to be a vacuum of power that will be filled by America’s enemies and one-time allies — to our extreme detriment.

Even so, Gates has let it become known that he would like to cut even further. He’s been bad-mouthing the Navy’s aircraft carriers, even though he told Kaplan he wasn’t crazy enough to attack them frontally. On the other hand, he seems to be signaling that he is crazy enough to think we no longer need an amphibious warfare capability or even the U.S. Marines Corps.

Chuckie Corra at Firedoglake:

I first saw this reported by Ben Smith for Politico.com and was a bit surprised. Robert Gates is the current Secretary of Defense for the Obama Administration, and had been for George W. Bush as well. This could be a crucial decision made by Gates as much of the attention in Obama’s presidency is now focused on the two wars started by the Bush Administration, but expected to be finished by Obama.

Robert Gates, pillar of Obama’s national security policy, tells Fred Kaplan he’ll leave some time next year, ensuring that the decision about replacing him is shadowed by Obama’s re-election campaign.

There’s no obvious replacement for Gates, certainly none with the same capacity to silence Republican attacks on the administration’s security policy. The most politically logical replacement may be HIllary Clinton.

[Source: Politico (cited from Foreign Policy Magazine)]

Ben Smith is right. This could be yet another thing brought to the table by Republicans to admonish Obama and his handling of National Security issues, especially if a Democrat is appointed to take Gates’ place. Appointing Hillary Clinton, as Smith suggested, seems to me to be more of a tumultuous effort. This would involve having to find someone else to head State Department. Two crucial changes in two of the arguably most important cabinet positions could be costly politically and as far as his policies are concerned as well.

Robert Gates’s position as Secretary of Defense is about the only thing the Republicans haven’t extensively chastised Obama for in his first two years in the Oval Office. The RNC is certainly looking at this news and salivating.

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