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How to Judge Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Initial reviews of Robert Gates in his job as secretary of defense have generally been good, and rightly so. Writing in the Washington Examiner, for example, Jay Ambrose commends Gates for his support of General David Petraeus’s new surge strategy, his openness to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s new approach on North Korea, and his handling of the Walter Reed medical scandal—including holding civilian officials and generals, rather than just lower-level military personnel, accountable for their actions. At the level of style and rhetoric, Ambrose also compliments Gates for parrying an attack by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who lambasted the United States at a recent security meeting in Europe: Gates followed up by reminding the attendees that one cold war was quite enough.

 Even in the four short months he has been on the job, Gates’s list of accomplishments goes on. He is wisely supporting an increase of some 70,000 in the active-duty strength of the U.S. ground forces, even if the increase may be too little and too late to help in Iraq. And his earlier public support for negotiating with Iran may have helped prod the Bush administration to send representatives to the recent Baghdad regional security conference at which Iranian officials were also present.

On all these points, Gates is a welcome contrast to Donald Rumsfeld. On all of them, he is either likely to be proved right—or at least to have recognized a failed policy and been willing to try something else that, even if it also fails, will probably not leave us worse off than we would otherwise have been. For example, even if diplomatic contact with North Korea and Iran leads nowhere, we are unlikely to suffer unless we somehow give away the store in the process of trying (an exceedingly unlikely prospect). And, even if the surge fails in Iraq, it had become painfully clear, as President Bush has now conceded, that the earlier strategy was on a trajectory toward gradual failure. Moreover, Gates has made it clear that, if the surge is working, we should see at least some proof by summer, reducing the chances that his strategy will lead to a protracted reinforcement of failure the way Rumsfeld’s did (since, absent major progress by summer, we would presumably have to change course).

Gates is also appealing at a personal level. My limited contact with him has been consistent with the public portrayal of a man without many airs yet with plenty of self-confidence; a person with a business-like demeanor yet an appealing and quick wit; a solid conservative and Republican who nonetheless knows how to listen to and engage with Democrats.

But, while it is appealing for those of us who had tired of Rumsfeld to lionize Gates, it is also way too soon for that. At a broad historical level, Gates won’t become known as a successful secretary of defense if we lose the war in Iraq—as seems entirely possible—though he won’t get the blame, either. And, even in a short-term sense, despite Gates’s ability to sidestep the partisan exchanges over Iraq, he may not be able to keep doing so through this summer and fall. My expectation is that the current budget impasse over the 2007 supplemental appropriation can and will be resolved, with Democrats making clear their disapproval of current strategy and their desire to get the troops home without actually mandating that outcome. But, by the time we begin appropriating for fiscal year 2008 (which begins on October 1, and which will require a new debate this summer), it will be hard for Gates to avoid getting dragged down into the mud.

So, rather than rushing to grade Gates at this early time, it’s more useful to set up a framework that will help us evaluate, in one to two years’ time, whether he was able to build a successful tenure out of his strong start. In doing so, we should focus on five enduring challenges he will continue to face:

  • The war in Iraq. To me, wisdom on Iraq these days means acknowledging that we do not yet know whether the surge will work. Most administration officials are beginning to insist it already is; most Democrats, for their part, are tending to insist the war is already lost; in my view, both are wrong. Gates, of course, has limited room to maneuver here, but he can at least help us understand what metrics we should use to evaluate the surge—and also how much progress is enough (a 25 percent reduction in violence? at least a few breakthroughs on political reconciliation?) to warrant sustaining it in light of all the risks and costs. If we fail—or achieve only modest improvement—by summer, he should be willing to say so, and to help think through alternatives like a “Bosnia model” for enhanced federalism in Iraq (that is, soft partition).
  • The war in Afghanistan. This war goes along, somewhat more quietly than the effort in Iraq and somewhat more successfully. But as with the mission in Iraq, trends have been in the wrong direction. We may need even more troops. We may need to encourage President Hamid Karzai to negotiate with “moderate” Taliban. We will need to keep up the pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to go after Al Qaeda and Taliban headquarters in the western parts of his country. It verges on stating the obvious, but is nonetheless true, to remember that if Gates cannot help turn the major military operations we conduct on his watch into at least partial successes, it will be hard to give him great accolades come 2009.
  • The rise of China. This problem is easier, in that American policy is closer to being on the right track—a combination of engagement (on economics and matters like North Korea), principled disagreement (on matters like Sudan and Iran) when necessary, and military hedging (through U.S. alliances in the region). But, given the magnitude of China’s importance, it is essential that a secretary of defense stay vigilant while avoiding the Rumsfeldian tendency to categorize it as a strategic rival.
  • The “long war” on terrorism. Give Rumsfeld at least some credit on this one; he was among the only people in town in 2003-2004 to remind the country that, whatever our successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, we needed a broader strategy to prevent the next generation of Al Qaeda from being even stronger and larger than the current one. Rumsfeld responded by strengthening the Special Forces, increasing certain basing capabilities in the Middle East, and changing defense policy in other ways that, on balance, will accommodate prolonged war efforts. Gates will have to go further by supporting the secretary of state as she seeks to bolster the internal strength of key Islamic states through various aid, trade, and diplomacy initiatives. Even if his role is largely rhetorical (and budgetary) in this regard, it is crucial.
  • Pentagon budgeting and force-planning. As of 2008, the Pentagon budget will have doubled under George W. Bush’s watch. Yet the Pentagon is unwell. Leaving aside problems with the wars, its equipment is still aging and its ambitions for weapons-modernization remain too great for the likely resources. Gates will need to apply some of the same discipline he has administered after Walter Reed—and to make tough choices—on the force-planning and budgeting front. This does not require a cut in the defense budget, but it does require some prioritization among the military services.

God bless him, Robert Gates has taken a tough job at a very tough moment. The fact that he looks good now is misleading, given that the tide of history is still working against him. He is smart enough, I’d wager, to realize this, and not to start writing any self-laudatory autobiographies just yet, even if Washington is starting to make him its flavor of the month. On this one, stay tuned.