Back Channels: Robert M. Gates will be a hard act to follow as defense secretary

Robert M. Gates supported the troops as Pentagon chief.
Robert M. Gates supported the troops as Pentagon chief. (VIRGINIA MAYO / AP)
Posted: June 26, 2011

Robert M. Gates will be a tough act to follow as defense secretary.

Gates, who just days ago learned that he will receive Philadelphia's Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in September, leaves office this week. He summed up the highlights of his tenure as Pentagon chief last month in a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy.

He took office in December 2006, "during the toughest stretch of the Iraq war . . . casualties were at their highest, and prospects of success uncertain at best. At the time, the Taliban were making their comeback in Afghanistan, and history's most notorious terrorist was still at large."

Today, he pointed out, "Iraq has a real chance at a peaceful and democratic future; in Afghanistan, the Taliban momentum has been halted and reversed; and Osama bin Laden is finally where he belongs."

Any one of those would be a significant milestone. All three happened on Gates' watch.

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Gates' speech was not a "look what I did" moment. In fact, he was contrasting these significant bookends of his time in office to make two points about others:

First, he was applauding the graduates before him because they had made the decision to serve their country and entered the Naval Academy, despite the extremely difficult times for the military and the nation.

Second, he was giving credit where it belonged for the dramatic change in the war on terror's circumstances, to "the skill and sacrifice of countless young warriors and patriots."

Paying attention to those who do the fighting - and too often the dying - in the nation's wars has been a hallmark of Gates' time at the Pentagon. Though brought in by President George W. Bush to redirect the attention of Washington's unwieldy political and defense establishment on the surge and new counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, Gates never lost sight of those he was responsible for sending into harm's way.

"I have come to work every day with a sense of personal responsibility for each and every young American in uniform - as if you were my own sons and daughters," he said in Annapolis.

When Gates took over at Defense, there was still a debate over whether the million-dollar price tag for each "mine-resistance ambush-protected" vehicle (MRAP) was worth the cost. For Gates, it wasn't even a question. He spent billions to get as many heavily armored troop carriers into Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Then he followed the program closely. As the Los Angeles Times noted, he was able to report to troops outside Kandahar recently "that there were precisely 7,081 MRAPs in Afghanistan that day."

Later, in 2008, he would insist that the time it took to bring wounded troops to field hospitals in Afghanistan be cut. Since then it has gone from almost two hours to about 40 minutes.

Gates' tenure hasn't been criticism-free. Much of that concern is on the topic that consumes all of Washington these days: budgeting.

Though Gates himself has worked with President Obama on trimming more than $300 billion from the defense budget, he's attacked from the left for not doing enough. "Every year of his tenure, Gates asked Congress to increase the defense budget in real terms," Lawrence J. Korb of the Center for American Progress recently wrote for the National Interest. "When he took over at the Pentagon, the baseline budget was $450 billion. Four and half years later, it is over $550 billion."

Mackenzie Eaglen of the Heritage Foundation worries that the cuts have been too deep and reflect a "lack of long-term planning at the Defense Department."

The nation is still living off the military buildup of the Reagan era in many respects, she says, yet "we've abandoned virtually every modernization program."

Gates would seem to agree with Eaglen. He said recently at the American Enterprise Institute that while defense had to be part of getting the nation's fiscal house in order, modernization was still a priority. The country still has responsibilities to meet.

"Make no mistake," said the man whose long career has included senior posts serving two Democratic and three Republican presidents. "The ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is 'hard' power - the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military."

Ensuring that the country continues to meet those challenges falls on Gates' successor, Leon Panetta.

"While many people witness history, those who step forward to serve in a time of crisis have a place in history," Gates told the Naval Academy graduates. "As of today, you join the long line of patriots in a noble calling. By your service you will have a chance to leave your mark on history."

Just as Gates has done.


Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or kf@phillynews.com.

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